How would we cope with giant robots in space? Adam Elkus, an analyst specializing in foreign policy and strategic studies, looks at the anime classic Mobile Suit Gundam for some answers.
Besides being awesome, giant robots are completely and utterly implausible. They defy the laws of basic physics, mechanics, and engineering (I refer you to a classic Den Beste post on the subject), and have no value at all besides being awesome. That being said, it's interesting to think through some of the strategies that are typically seen in Mobile Suit Gundam, the most popular military mecha series. Of course, all of it is patently absurd at heart, but it's the amusing kind of absurdity that comes with awesome giant robots.
1. Grand Strategy in Giant Robot Wars: I'm In Ur Orbit, Droppin Sum Colonies
In the late 90s, Colin S. Gray and some Air Force and Navy thinkers began thinking of "astropolitik," the extension of classical 19th century geopolitical theory into space. He who controlled the High Frontier and its access points to Earth, controlled Earth. He who controls Earth controls the World Island, and so on. In theory, this would allow a military force to target the unlucky landlubbers below with strategic weapons (nukes, dropped colonies, etc) as well as concentrate force at crucial strategic Lagrange Points for assaults onto the ground. Astropolitik is essentially the geopolitics of Mobile Suit Gundam.
Terrestrially, in Gundam those who control space can target the Earth surface with advanced weapons, launch large-scale terrestrial strategic deployments, and even drop entire space colonies on the surface. Space can also be used to manufacture weapons, although colonial exploitation capabilities are too primitive to permit supply of a protracted war consisting mainly of strategic attrition of high-tech weaponry (such as space "naval" capital ships and awesome giant robots). So while space has an advantage in possession of the "high ground," grand strategy dictates that unless terrestrial forces can be annihilated in an opening stroke, possession of large resource areas on Earth is necessary for success.
Earth foreign policy (in most Gundam series Earth is politically united) mainly a traditional pursuit of resources and security. A different strategic culture develops in space, however, one rooted more toward ideological fanaticism and the use of weapons of mass murder. This changes Earth's calculus. In the original Mobile Suit Gundam universe (0079 to Char's Counterattack), Earth is forced to fight a war of attrition that depletes a substantial part of its population, leading it to crack down significantly on space colonists.
2. Strategy and Campaigning: The Influence of Space Power Upon History
As Earth is the status quo power, most wars are started by space colonists. As in the late 19th century, the initial period of strategic deployment is crucial to the long-term winning of wars. Wars usually begin with a two-part strategic offensive designed to destroy the entire Earth naval fleet of capital ships and mobile suits around the colonies, followed by the annihilation of any remaining forces in the High Frontier around Earth orbit. From there, abandoned colonies and nuclear weapons are dropped onto the surface to destroy major Earth population and resource centers and political-military command and control nodes. Once this strategy of annihilation is complete, strategic deployment of mobile suits commences to the Earth's interior for occupation duties and the mopping-up of any resistance.
Just like the 1914 campaign in the West, however, this annihilation strategy floundered, and Earth was able to not only blunt the force of the strategic attack but preserve enough ground to eventually win the war of attrition. This, however, did not stop space colonists from trying the tactic again and again, with increasingly desperate strategic raids consisting of cobbled-together expeditionary forces.
Campaigning on Earth is depicted as not unlike conventional land strategy. Campaigning in space (not coincidentally) resembles the World War II Pacific campaign, with bloody naval battles fought for control over crucial strings of asteroid belts, colonies, and shoal zones. The Earth military frequently employs an asteroid or colony-hopping strategy directed from combinations of large capital ships and mobile suit carriers.
One important ability is that expeditionary forces can, with proper equipment, campaign in both Earth and space. In low-intensity warfare, guerrilla bands or terrorists move from place to place with a mobile base ship, carrying out a process of moral and strategic attrition. If Earth grows too hot for them, they can "break out" to hide in space. Since "magic bullet" weapons (tactical nukes and abnormally powerful suits) are available, small groups of properly equipped suits can inflict great damage on civilian and military targets. In one episode, a "bitter-ender" partisan armed with a tactical nuclear weapon annihilates a significant portion of a Earth naval fleet review.
It goes without saying that nowhere is logistics at any point considered beyond the strategic problem of resources for protracted war.
3. Operational Art and Tactics: JFC Fuller Dreams of Awesome Giant Robots
I presume this is the part that many people reading this post probably skipped down to: awesome giant robots! And I will not disappoint you. But first, a preface. In the interwar period, JFC Fuller argued for an Army largely composed of highly mobile tanks. This force would be small, but highly mobile and destructive enough to collapse enemy resistance by targeting headquarters. This would, in turn, lead to the large-scale collapse of enemy resistance across the entire front. As the Soviet theorist Tukhaveksii noted in a review of Fuller's book, this was a horrible idea that resembled (again not coincidentally) science fiction.
In giant robot operations on Earth, Fuller's dream of small highly mobile armies rules the day. (in both ground and air) enable a single ground robot unit to theoretically carry out the roles and function of Army aviation, tanks, and multiple-launch rocket forces simultaneously. As per there are different types of robots optimized for certain roles (recon, long-range artillery, airmobility, snipers, or infantry assault).
Exercising command and control is depicted as difficult due to the fluidity of engagement-in Gundam 00 an level of troop control that would have made even Frederick the Great cower is needed to maintain control once the enemy approaches the FLOAR (Forward Line of Own Awesome Robots). A central C2 node (usually an aircraft or landship in flight) coordinates battles through progressively more advanced interfaces.
Tanks, aircraft, and mechanized infantry are also employed. But also as per Fuller, only aircraft are really important. Non-mechas are mainly useful for minor tasks, occupation, and rear area security. Lastly, in another Fuller-istic take, non-mecha defenses against mechas are depicted as pretty much ineffective. Specialized mobile weapons and landships and heavy guns are effective, but are niche capabilities that augment a giant robot force. Not surprisingly, (the genre demands it), some robots are vastly more powerful than others but can be destroyed if encircled and outnumbered. Tactical and strategic nuclear weapons are occasionally employed, but for the most part a policy of mutual deterrence prevails.
Earth robot operations exploit airmobility significantly, with large-scale operational deployment of robot forces possible with large capital ships (the White Base) capable of movement in Earth as well as heavy fire support and the ability to drop a large robot unit in place from either aircraft carriers or large transport planes. Operational maneuver on Earth, however, is depicted as being relatively unsophisticated and mainly attrition-based-perhaps because many robot commanders do not yet understand the potential of their machines.
In space, combat is considerably more sophisticated. Naval capital ships offer large-scale firepower, but are slow and heavily vulnerable to fast-moving squads of robots that rapidly close with and destroy unprotected capital vessels. Naval operations are conducted within line-of-sight, 19th century style, although some advanced fire platforms (many of which resemble crude ripoffs of the Death Star) can mass fires from a very long distance.
Most battles, both on space and Earth, are encounter battles in which both sides have only a short time to deploy from line of march to tactical formations. The side that can deploy its robots faster and concentrate fires the fastest and most effectively is usually the most successful, although outright destruction is rare. Most of the time, there is a withdrawal after mutual attrition, followed by a repair process conducted aboard the base ship.
The classic problem of march to battle formation is also an issue. Robots maneuver tactically faster when packed in dense masses, which makes command and control easier. But as previously mentioned, the fluidity of battle demands a much more decentralized tactics. Occasionally, firepower is concentrated in lines. Because robots are armed with electric sabers they can close with and destroy opponents if they can get close enough—-but they rarely, in fact, do.
The biggest problem in space operational art is to break through an opponent's layered defenses. With a judicious mixture of capitol ships, skilled pilots, and positioned asteroids to canalize an enemy advance a defender can break an attacker's strike apart with a series of echeloned and mutually supporting fire positions. Any local penetration can be rapidly defeated by counterconcentration with operational and tactical robot reserves. This problem is not really solved in any of the Gundam series except through "magic bullet" solutions (the Gundams).
3. Overall Lessons Learned
As commented earlier, the world of Gundam is one that seems like the logical endpoint of those depicted by the most enthusiastic interwar mechanized theorists, at least on a tactical and operational level. Elsewhere, it is a strange re-enactment of Japan's World War II naval defeat, with robots and space ships replacing fighters and carriers. On the grand strategic and strategic levels, Gundam reflects the 19th century concerns of geopolitics and strategic deployment for annihilation—with giant robots fighting in space, colony drops, and evil militaristic empires with strange hats.