Martin Van Creveld is correct to suggest that the planning and conduct of war – defined broadly to encompass intelligence, strategy and logistics as well as the battlefield – is permeated by technology. Yet sound politico-military strategy amounts to more than just having the right technological means. Indeed, technicians alone cannot conduct strategy. Allowing technological innovation to drive strategy can go horribly wrong. What at first appears to be a good idea is undone by cost and industrial feasibility. So enamoured were British Second World War planners with Geoffrey Pyke’s plan to build an aircraft carrier made exclusively out of ice and saw dust, for example, that they completely neglected the costs or feasibility of building a freezer big enough to produce the iced vessel. Technology is but one element of an overall strategy; yet technological innovation can be used as an excuse not to develop a proper politico-military strategy.
The production of Dassault’s nEUROn – a stealth remote-controlled combat aircraft – has the faintest scent of Pyke’s tragedy. Rather than identifying the possible strategic applications of the nEUROn, Dassault and the French Direction générale de l’armement have decided to laud the nEUROn as a paragon of ‘European cooperation’. True, cooperation – by pooling expertise and productive comparative advantages – is a way to lower costs. True, fifty percent of the nEUROn was built by European partners: Alenia Aermacchi (Italy) built the sensors; Saab (Sweden) the main fuselage and fuel system; EADS-CASA (Spain) the wings; Hellenic Aerospace Industry (Greece) the exhaust pipes; and Ruag (Switzerland) made available the wind tunnel for aerodynamic testing. However, is ‘European cooperation’ ever enough of a rationale for the development of such strategic weaponry?
Surely more focus is needed on the ultimate military applications of the nEUROn: what does this remote-controlled combat aircraft mean for European geostrategy? That is the question. Beyond the ethical and legal loopholes into which remote-controlled aircraft currently fall, such air systems represent the latest phase in the changing nature of warfare. Firstly, they are not just useful for the purposes of reconnaissance – if this were the case satellites would do the job – but they are also instruments of war. Secondly, they can be used for short-term operations, surgical strikes and for special operations. Thirdly, the fielding of remote-controlled aircraft can also drastically reduce war casualties (for their controllers at least), which may make the prospect of intervention easier. Fourthly, the technological sophistication of remote-controlled aircraft afford militaries a psychological edge over opponents. Finally, their onboard equipment can represent important commercial spin-offs for the civilian sector.
However, remote-controlled aircraft do not change the ultimate nature of warfare. To break an enemy in combat the complete military (and sometimes civilian) infrastructure must be decommissioned and/or demoralised. No political objective can be achieved through conflict without altering or breaking the will of an opponent. No amount of remote-controlled aircraft can achieve this alone, even if, as part of the broader military mix, they can be effective towards this end. Furthermore, remote-controlled aircraft are not a panacea for strategic weakness. As has been the case throughout the long history of military science, new technological innovations for offensive purposes beget new technological innovations for defensive purposes. For example, companies such as Lockheed Martin are already developing capabilities to disable remote-controlled air systems. The company’s Area Defence Anti-Munitions system aims to down small remote-controlled air systems through ground-based military energy weaponry.
Something more than just remote-controlled aircraft are needed therefore, even if they represent a milestone in technological progress. Indeed, technological development without coherent strategic anchoring is never enough. The age-old mistake is thinking that technological innovation for its own sake is enough; this is particularly true when one is behind the curve in military science. Europeans need to set a politico-military framework into which remote-controlled aircraft, and all other forms of remotely-operated vehicles, along with the traditional armed forces, play a specific strategic role. Where remote-controlled systems are concerned, Europeans need to ultimately answer a simple question: what will such systems add to European geostrategy? Perhaps behind the façade of ‘European cooperation’ officials at Dassault and the French government have a wider strategic vision that they wish to keep private. But they should hope, and actively seek to avoid, letting the development of the nEUROn go the way of Pyke’s aircraft carrier: once an idea but now nothing more than a pile of saw dust and melting ice.
• Image credit: Eurocopter tigre.