By Jacob Foxx
When I was a kid, I loved two robot cartoons: Battletech and Transformers. As I got older and learned more about warfare, it was becoming more and more evident that I would probably never see giant mechs fighting it out in any conflict in the near future. More recently, I’ve come to wonder if a battle mech is a practical weapon system at any point in the future.
The idea of a mech or powered suit, is almost a nostalgic reach to the past when warfare was more of a melee, more individualistic, and less dominated by machines and long-distance weaponry. There is something almost romantic about two warriors staring each other face to face rather than a drone pilot pushing buttons on a controller in some trailer in Florida.
Advances in robotics make such weapons possible, even if we are perhaps a few decades away from making them a superior weapon. For now, the dominant weapon systems are the tank, attack helicopter, and fighter. To become a real weapon, the battle mech would need to be comparable or superior to these.
To build a battle mech today, probably wouldn’t be worth the investment. It would be extremely expensive. Most of the technologies needed to make it function have not been developed yet. Current robots are very slow, awkward, and would therefore need serious upgrades, requiring heavy investment.
Second, a mech would be very vulnerable to attack. A tank is survivable because of heavy armor and a small silhouette. It is not easy to hit at a long range and can hide behind obstacles. A tall robot won’t be able to hide and won’t have the same armor protection. Even if such armor protection were available, it would make the machine extremely heavy, requiring a incredibly powerful motor. Mechs also have several vulnerable spots, particularly their legs and knees. Knock one out, and the mech will be on its ass and have a hard time getting back up.
Walking is not easy operation. Powering a wheeled or tracked vehicle is easy. Powering a walker requires a sophistication in movement, motion, and balance that is almost impossible today. Sure its easy for humans, but try and program a machine to do it.
Finally, firepower. The battle mech would need to offer incredible firepower to equal or surpass the tank. A robot holding two 120mm cannons would be very heavy and liable to fall over from the recoil.
Okay J, we are decades away from an operable battle mech. No duh. So what would it take to make the battle mech feasible?
I think it begins with propulsion. A mech needs power to execute all the various movements of its legs, arms, torso, and anything else we put on it. A new propulsion system is needed that can fit in a robot and put out more power than any diesel or gas turbine engine. Overcome the propulsion issue, and the mech becomes a little more realistic.
Mobility is the second challenge. A mech would need to be faster and more maneuverable than its chief rival, the tank. If it could climb steep hills or mountains, that would be a serious advantage. Another advantage would be the ability to swim or traverse water without being knocked over by the current. A tank can drive through several feet of water but most bodies of water on the battlefield will likely have depths exceeding twenty feet.
A mech must be able to balance itself with little trouble, walk, run, jump, and perhaps roll and push itself off the ground relatively quickly and easily. Otherwise, a simple knockdown would render it ineffective. It must be the most mobile land weapon on the battlefield.
To be superior to the attack helicopter or fighter jet, a mech needs to carry heavier firepower. The drawback of aircraft today are that it has limited firepower in terms of ammunition. It needs to return to base to reload and refuel. The more ammunition and fuel it carries, the heavier and slower it is, and thus more vulnerable. Aircraft are lightweight and incredibly nasty, but can’t hold territory or a ground position. That is what tanks and infantry are for.
More firepower/ammo means a mech can hold territory. In terms of weaponry, direct energy weapons are very practical because they don’t have the recoil and don’t need to carry heavy ammunition. Whatever the weapon, a mech can carry bigger ones and more of them.
Armor protection is the final challenge. What is to stop someone firing a missile right at its knee, taking it down? The mech would have to have superior armor that can withstand small and medium arms. If an infantryman can fire a rocket and take down a mech, no one will bother investing in the development and construction of a fighting robot.
This brings us to the cost challenge. If anyone is going to fork out the cash, a mech as to have a high return on investment. It has to be durable, easy to maintain, and extremely difficult to kill, to be worth the investment.
If its possible, the mech is superior to the tank in speed, mobility, firepower, and survivability. It is superior to fighter aircraft in terms of firepower and the ability to defend territory. When there is combat on an alien planet with extreme terrain, a tank is nearly useless. A tank needs roads or relatively flat terrain to move at adequate speeds. A mech can also carry more armor since it is bigger, with a larger propulsion system.
Cities, fortifications, bunkers, and other hardened targets would not be able to withstand an assault. It must a combination of weapon systems, putting armor, cavalry, reconnaissance, and artillery in one machine.
Is it possible? Who knows. It requires a new form of energy, a new armor material strong than any in existence today, and new direct energy weapons not yet in existence. These things may not be possible. If not, it is possible the attack helicopter combined with tanks and infantry will remain the preferred means of conventional warfare. In space, aircraft and spacecraft become of vital importance.
Still, it is fun to imagine enormous battles with hundreds of mechs smashing away at one another with lasers, rockets, maybe even giant melee weapons.