Thomas Nelson is a McDaniel College graduate and writer based in Washington, DC. He can be found on Twitter at @trnels.
Japanese fiction popularized the idea of the giant robot as a tool for combat, but few series have portrayed them as realistic military tools. The original Mobile Suit Gundam does just that, showing a war between Zion and the colonies where mobile suits – the technical name for militarized giant robots – are the military technology of choice for both sides. Tanks, fighter jets and other military vehicles are all but absent, and even then they have been adapted to fit into a mobile suit-centric force.
Mobile suits, at least on screen, have a few advantages over contemporary military technology. The humanoid shape and piloting system allows the pilot to move the suit like his or her own body, allowing it to do anything a normal person could but on a larger scale, making them extremely flexible in terms of tasks. Indeed, in just the first episode you can see Gundam in both combat and support roles as it fights enemy forces and later assists in loading supplies and construction on board White Base.
Maybe the greatest tactical advantage of the mobile suits is their ability to quickly adapt to a variety of terrains and theatres. They can be seen fighting on land, underwater and in space.
With the addition of support vehicles, mentioned earlier, they can even be used for air strikes.
Weaponry can by swapped as easily as a human picks up another gun, only increasing their applications. A squadron of mobile suits could potentially replace a majority of military vehicles and eliminate the need for specialized transport across certain terrains.
The G-Fighter was also a significant tactical advantage. Based around the Core Fighter system, Gundam was effectively a modular weapons platform, being able to switch from air to ground combat specialization in a matter of minutes courtesy of laser guidance. The flexibility to switch configurations even in the middle of a firefight – which happen many times in the series – grants the Gundam a significant ability to adjust tactics on the fly and suit itself for any opponent.
One of the most glaring issues is the computer systems used to pilot mobile suits. One of their greatest advantages is the human-like dexterity that allows them to accomplish a wide range of tasks. But looking at the cockpits, the controls appear far too simple for the amount of finesse a pilot would require. Some level of self-intelligence has to exist in order for the suits to function as they do. (The implied learning capabilities of the Gundam reinforced the idea that it may exist.) But the technology that exists today would need to progress in leaps and bounds before mobile suits would be responsive and quick enough for military use.
Natural reflexes of humans to do thing like avoid strikes and find secure footing would have to be programmed into a central nervous system, no easy task for a towering hunk of metal and servos. The pilot would have to find a balance as well, knowing when these reflexes should be allowed to override their own commands and when they should be in complete control over how the suit reacts. At this point, we can barely get a four-foot-tall robot to go up the stairs.
Beyond this highly complex computer system, these things are BIG, and need a lot of power to move them around at a level suitable for military applications. That’s only going to increase with the use of jet propulsion systems or underwater combat. The suits are powered by nuclear reactors, which have to be compact and light enough to fit inside the suit and not weigh them down. This may not be an issue in zero-gravity combat but if these suits want to be functional in multiple theaters – which appears to be their biggest advantage – then nuclear power sources are also going to need some significant upgrades.While these first two issues can be addressed with the slow march of time and scientific progress, the third is a complete about-face from contemporary trends in military strategy.
All the focus now is on small footprints: surgical strikes instead of all-out barrages, or using a drone instead of a fighter jet to take out a target. As pointed out earlier, these suits are large, and lack any kind of stealth. They stand high above the treeline and are painted in primary colors, and require large facilities and crews for maintenance. In some ways it’s a return to the tactics of European army of the 1700s, who would march into the battlefield with their bright uniforms, standing in plain sight for the enemy to see. But with modern military equipment, these suits would stand out like a sore thumb.