Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dune as a Mirror on Tactical Doctrine

Admiral Yamamoto wants a do-over
I'm an unabashed fan of Frank Herbert's Dune. I'm fascinated by the construction of an entire, completely plausible universe with an understanding of politics, religion and economics.  One of the things that makes Herbert's Dune universe work is a specific set of technological assumptions that channeled the options for conflict in specific directions.  The use of  personal shields precludes guns - so called 'projectile weapons' - along with directed energy weapons like lasers.  Each feudal House had a stockpile of nuclear weapons - the 'Family Atomics" - but, just as with the world we have lived in for the last sixty years, the use of these weapons is impossible because every scenario for their deployment leads to the destruction of modern civilization.

So conflicts in the Dune universe are limited to a very specialized form of edged weapons combat and various kinds of skulduggery and poison.  The idea is that you learn to do a few very unusual, highly specialized things in order to win in single combat, and those that are truly gifted and perfect these otherwise arbitrary skills become the legendary warriors of their time, the Duncan Idaho of their cohort.

There are genuinely fascinating parallels between that sort of specifically limited combat options and the once-in-a-species experience of air-to-air combat in WWII.  The required skills seem obvious - airmanship, tactics and gunnery.  But this was both simpler, and infinitely more complex.  High speed individual combat in 3 dimensions, spatial awareness, understanding both the capabilities and limitations of your aircraft, your weapons and your colleagues.  Early in the war the most gifted warriors in this unprecedented form of single combat learned things like 'Never turn with a Zero' and developed a life-preserving tactic called the 'Thatch Weave'.

When you think about it, this set of highly specialized skills only had salience for a few years in the mid twentieth century.  There were air-to-air battles in Korea and Vietnam, but they were much different, performed at higher speeds and mediated by greater technology than the earlier fights that were truly dependent upon the capabilities of the humans at the controls. Indeed, in both the European and Pacific theaters, the Axis loss of trained, experienced fighter pilots was the decisive consideration - training is great, but in order to succeed you needed people who could survive long enough to learn how to fight in this very specific kind of battle.  And it took both good airframe design and a real focus on air-sea rescue that could keep the best pilots in the fight.

It's hard to overstate how odd and time-specific this type of warfare actually was.  You have to go back to the medieval knights to find a time when individual, one-on-one combat had a place in a larger military campaign.  There's a great deal of discussion around the glory and honor of air-to-air combat - I'll leave that judgement to the reader - but the fact remains that you have to have such an odd technological and geopolitical balance in order to ever utilize that kind of combat at all.  Ultimately, it's a technological battle - the Mustang, Thunderbolt, Corsair and Hellcat gave the Americans a real qualitative advantage no matter what other factors you measure, but it still only took one mistake in tactics, one error in energy management or one lapse in judgement or awareness and you would lose to a technologically weaker foe.  It's another similarity to the medieval knights - a better horse could still stumble - or the Dune universe, where a better fighter could make a simple tactical error and pay the ultimate price for doing so.

The last hundred years has seen the technological evolution of warfare - from the repeating rifle to air power to missiles and nuclear weapons - that has resulted in the geopolitical stalemate we're seeing all over the world.  But it has, for brief periods, produced some tremendously odd forms of warfare that we see as normal, but when viewed in a larger context are simply highly specialized manifestations of the current status of technology as applied to human conflict.  And when viewed through that lens, the accelerating nature of technology can be expected to continue to be disruptive to all the best-laid plans of Admirals, Generals and Joint Chiefs all over the globe.  From ballistic missiles reducing the forward role of aircraft carriers to unmanned combat aircraft limiting the natural inhibition to attack, warfare is getting smaller, closer and more personal after a century of huge armies and continental battlefronts.  Just like Frank Herbert presented in Dune, advancing technology can actually make warfare more personal, and more dependent on a few individual's skills.


  1. One could think of the asymmetric warfare used by the VC, the mujhadeen (both against the Russians and us) and the freedom fighters in Iraq as an example of this, but for different reasons. They were all fighting against a technologically superior foe. Seems kinda odd to me that the solution on either end of the tech spectrum is asymmetry.

  2. Each feudal House had a stockpile of nuclear weapons - the 'Family Atomics"

    I refer to 2008 as the day the Bushes lost the "Family Atomics".

    It's funny, I liked Dune, but I couldn't get over the fact that the setting was more interesting than the action in the novel (I gave up after the second one, which I didn't like).

    Have you read "National Lampoon's" Doon? I... uh... think I prefer it to the original.

  3. I couldn't get over the fact that the setting was more interesting
    I couldn't get over the fact that a planet w/o oceans or biomass had an atmosphere. (Or giant worms.)

    Which makes me a big poop like mikey w/ his "No, you cannot travel beyond the solar system at better than light-speed."