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Victor Davis Hanson On The First Landing Of A Drone On An Aircraft Carrier

Thursday, July 11, 2013

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HH: It is going to be an enormously important day in the history of Naval aviation and military affairs, because today, bat-winged experimental Navy drone landed on the USS George H. W. Bush. And as I did in the first hour talking to Navy aviators, I continue to say think about it. And now, I’m going to talk about it with someone who will probably have been thinking about it for a long time, Victor Davis Hanson, military historian extraordinaire, author of the brand-new book, The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost. He joins us from the Hoover Institution up at Stanford. Hello, VDH, welcome back, good to talk to you.

VDH: Thanks for having me, Hugh.

HH: What do you think of this story? How significant is it that a pilotless aircraft landed on an aircraft carrier?

VDH: Well, it wouldn’t be if it was sort of a Predator drone. But as I understand, it’s a full-sized Navy jet. So what it suggest is that although it’s ostensibly for surveillance, we’re getting very close, I hate to say it, but we’re getting very close to being able to replicate the entire carrier operational fleet without pilots. If that were going to be true in say 2020 or 2025, that would mean that the whole Chinese strategy of having surface-to-ship missiles, and nullifying our carrier advantage, might be nullified in itself, in the sense that we could start deploying smaller, cheaper carriers with lots of drones that would be expendable, and sort of be a counter to what this Chinese strategy is, to targeting our 11 capital carriers.

HH: You see, I was trying to articulate this in the last hour, that at some point, you have leap frogs in technology.

VDH: Yes.

HH: And I’ve been listening to the new Churchill biography, and no one knew until Midway, no one really figured out until Pearl Harbor that the battleship didn’t matter anymore.

VDH: No, they didn’t, and they kept building them. Usually, there’s a lag time where people kept building battleships, but in this case, we were told that a five to eight billion investment in a carrier, and thirty billion in a carrier group, was starting to be a little iffy when China, for a fraction of that cost, could blanket the airspace with, say, ten thousand cheap shore-to-ship missiles. And that’s true. But if we could sort of trump that by saying okay, what would you do with, I don’t know, a hundred very cheap, flat carriers that were expendable and disposable with drone aircraft, and not just surveillance drone aircraft, but aircraft that were large enough to carry a pretty big payload? It does change things.

HH: Now in the last hour, I had a carrier pilot call and say yeah, but you know, the air to air mission doesn’t go away, even in the way that the fighter pilots had to protect the carriers in World War II after they leap-frogged the battleship. What do you think about that? Can you get, can you imagine, Victor Davis Hanson, a pilotless Navy?

VDH: Well, you know, we all, this is an existential chicken and the egg question, because ostensibly, somebody has to not just build the drones and plan them, but operate them. And then it’s, you’re never going to take the human element out, because somewhere, somebody is going to teach somebody how to program. You need some type of human experience somewhere. And people keep saying well, it’s going to be automatic warfare, robotic warfare. Well, eventually, we may have a war between console vs. console. And there will still be things like courage and cowardice, because it’s this, human nature is unchanging throughout the ages. And we’ve had these revolutions before where suddenly gun powder is said to completely eliminate the notion of medieval body armor or Greek hoplite body armor. And then now we’re back to Velcro. I’m told that we would have had seven times more casualties in Iraq if it hadn’t been for body armor, that we sort of nullified the idea that an AK-47 always had to kill somebody if it hit their flesh. So it’s response, counter-response, counter-response. But I don’t think the human element entirely vanishes at any stage.

HH: Now also, a caller last hour said look, this is going to greatly increase the avariciousness of the military industrial complex. They will offer up the idea of bloodless warfare, and they will build scores and hundreds and thousands of drones, because Americans won’t bleed like they did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and therefore, they’ll love war more. What do you think of that?

VDH: Well, that was the argument that was used against the volunteer army, that because we don’t have a draft, and mom and pop are not losing their son, that we’re going to get more active. And I don’t think that was necessarily true. I think one of the ideas, let’s face it, the idea of the, one of the pressures to go robotic, if I could use that word, is the savings and things like health care costs, pension care costs, payroll costs. So I can see a smaller human military and a larger mechanical military, robotic one, but I’m not sure that we’ve quite figured out whether that means we’re more or less aggressive, because ultimately, every challenge has a response. So if you’re going to get, I mean, people are aware of the fact that ultimately, people are going to die in a war whether they’re in California, civilians, or they’re out on the captain of an otherwise robotic ship. So I don’t, there’s always going to be an idea of deterrence, balance of power, preemption, preventive war. They don’t change just because technology changes. It’s kind of like the idea of, I live on a farm, and my grandfather used to pump water at three gallons a minute. And once he showed me the hand-held pump, and then he showed me the electric pump that pumped 1,500 gallons a minute. He said look at this – three gallons versus 1,500. And I said yeah, ag’s changed. And he said no, it isn’t, water hasn’t changed. It’s the same water. So war is the water. The pump has changed, but the essence of what it’s about, humans fighting each other to force one side to accept the political prerogatives of the other hasn’t changed.

HH: Well, let me ask you the thing that worries me the most is how to go about thinking this through, because there will be some who immediately see an opportunity to cut Defense spending by saying we don’t need the F-35. And in fact, this is why I’m working my way around to this. The F-35 is an expensive airplane. We’ve extended the Super Hornet F-18 for a few years. Thank goodness we did, because the F-35’s not ready. The F-22’s been shelved, because it’s too expensive. I now can almost hear Democrats in Congress standing up and saying we don’t need the F-35, let’s just go throw all in on the X-47B. What do you say to them, Victor Davis Hanson?

VDH: Well, the answer is always you want a varied military. There will be situations whether it’s because of terrain, I mean, you use your cell phone and you use your laptop, you use your iPad. There’s periods when you’re driving that you have no connectivity at all because of certain atmospheric or terrain considerations. So there’s going to be situations in which you don’t really want a drone. You want somebody thinking actively behind the console, or you’re not going to have the ideal environment for telecommunicated navigation, or you want somebody at the last moment that can make a human decision that’s on the spot, that can use human sensory perception rather than just computer. So I think the answer to it is you want to always have insurance, a backup system. And I think that’s been the brilliance of the American military – Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, missile subs, surface carriers. Everybody understands that, that we may get back to a period, whether it is some type of battleship again, and we may, it’s not linear. It’s always cyclical. It’s better to be prepared and have backup and insurance, and never say this is the new…it’s like saying you know, this iPhone is the end of cellular phones, we don’t need another computer. And it’s always changing, and the human element never vanishes.

HH: Now one day, we woke up after having developed an atomic monopoly, and the Soviets had it. They’d stolen it. And that made us very vulnerable. Now, drones, we pretty much own them. Other people are building them. One got shot down in Tehran, which I assume is now being reversed engineered in China. How long until this technology, a small platform drone capable of carrying weaponry, becomes a dagger pointed at the American heart?

VDH: Well, I think it’ll probably, we’ll start to see, the danger with drones is, is because they’re cheaper than manned aircraft, and you can make them in greater numbers. And so what I understand our vulnerability is as a historian is that we’re putting too much capital in too few assets. So let’s say in World War II, we had 20,000 planes. We might only have 6,000. And each one is more valuable, and so it’s more precious and more vulnerable. And so what drones do is they allow somebody who doesn’t have an empire or extended responsibilities to build an entire fleet of cheap assets, who’s only motive or only mission is to destroy ours that are deployed far from home, and it costs a lot more per unit.

HH: Yeah, I mean, the North Koreans…

VDH: They can nullify it.

HH: The North Koreans don’t need an intercontinental ballistic missile if they can…

VDH: They don’t need an aircraft carrier, they don’t need a cruiser, they don’t need any of the stuff we need. They don’t care about the Suez Canal, they don’t care about the Panama Canal, they don’t care about the Aegean. But they do say to us if you bring a big carrier in our battle space, we’re going to send thousands of drones, and for maybe, I don’t know, $50 million, we can destroy $7 billion dollars’ worth of capital.

HH: Where do they think these things through, VDH? Where do they convene to think about this sort of stuff?

VDH: Where?

HH: Yeah.

VDH: I think in the military, Pentagon, universities, places like the Rand Corporation, military historians. We have a group at Hoover that publishes a strategic magazine online, a group of military historians, guys like Ralph Peters, Andrew Roberts, Edward Luttwak, and believe me, the one commonality that I’ve learned from listening to these guys is somebody says A, and then somebody says well, if you do A, this is B. And then if somebody says this is B, C. And they think down the chain 17 or 18 steps.

HH: Well, I hope you guys are doing that tonight. I think it’s a big day in American military history, and that means universal military history. Victor Davis Hanson, author of the brand new bestseller, The Savior Generals, thank you.

End of interview.

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