This article came across my news feed:

This was my reaction:

Musk writes, “The competitor [to the F-35] should be a drone fighter plane that’s remote-controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy. The F-35 would have no chance against it.” Unmanned aircraft is an important trend in war (and the future of war). But what he is suggesting won’t be possible any time soon. In the next generation of weapon systems? Maybe. Or beyond.

It’s 2020, and we still do not have driverless cars on the road (except in testing). Maybe within the next decade we will have autonomous cars on the road, but maybe not (and I know folks who believed only a few years ago that it was almost a certainty we’d have them by 2020). Even if we have autonomous cars in real numbers on the roads in the next decade, flying an F-35 with the capabilities of our highly trained pilots is far more complicated than operating a car. It’s a big, big leap.

We’ve had UAVs operating in the military since the 1990’s (and Israel used them in the 1980s). Despite decades of development, they still have limitations that manned aircraft do not, giving manned aircraft much greater capabilities. Furthermore, the F-35 already has some degree of autonomy in the algorithms of its avionics to enhance the human pilot. So, the comparison Musk specifically describes is really that of a remote controlled, partially autonomous aircraft compared to a directly controlled, partially autonomous aircraft. The only real difference is the remote control.

Unfortunately for Musk, remote control is a disadvantage, compared to direct pilot control. In my understanding this largely has to do with latency (meaning the direct pilot can react much faster, whereas the remote pilot needs to wait for signals to travel through space back to him during events where fractions of seconds count). Humans in an actual cockpit also have greater situational awareness, compared to remote observation (among other advantages). Direct control, at least right now, provides greater capability to the aircraft, plain and simple.

Musk may be arguing (although this point isn’t made in the article linked above), that the unmanned aircraft will have superior computerized and algorithmic autonomy than the manned one. But why would this be the case? Any computerized autonomy provided to the unmanned aircraft could (and would) be able to be fitted into a manned aircraft (which is why, as stated above, the F-35 already has some “AI” in its avionics).

Because direct control is better than remote, the only realistic way for Musk’s unmanned drone to be superior is if the UAV’s autonomy is absolute (without human assistance) AND that this autonomy is better than a human pilot. Musk is not arguing the former (he specified remote control). And we are certainly far, far away from pure “AI” besting a human pilot (and Musk knows this all too well, due to Tesla).

In short, he’s just wrong – a manned F-35 is superior than any UAV we could put in service in the near term. Musk conflates the trend of the growing importance of UAVs to mean that they will soon replace manned aircraft. The real trend over the past two decades is of drones augmenting the capabilities of our other air (and ground) weapon systems, not displacing them. This isn’t to say unmanned aircraft will never replace manned aircraft, but not any time soon.

Here’s a recent example of how UAVs continue to augment, but not displace, manned multirole fighters.

The US already Prioritizes Innovation

Musk “warned that the United States was at risk of falling behind other nations if it did not prioritize innovation.” Really?

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (which publishes the annual Military Balance book that details global force postures for virtually every country), the US military R&D (“investment”) spending was nearly three times as much as China’s in 2019 (201 billion compared with 74.4 billion).

We also consistently spend a lot more on R&D for military purposes than our allies. Ranked by expenditure, we outspent the next 9 of our allies (OECD nations) in strict military R&D funding combined by a factor of four to one in 2017

Bottom line: the US outspends everyone, including China, by a large margin in R&D spending (as well as defense spending overall). Why is Musk exhorting us to focus on it even more ? (Because he would probably want to get his companies like SpaceX to have some of that nice government procurement money? Or is he just too lazy to look up basic information?)

Musk is also quoted as saying, “I have zero doubt that if the United States doesn’t seek innovation in space it will be second in space.” Yes – space is where the biggest changes to warfare are happening today. But once again Musk apparently has no clue. The US has innovated the militarization of space more than any other nation – and has done so for decades – and is the only nation (currently) to have a distinct service branch of Armed Forces specifically for space (as of December 2019). Also, we outspend all other countries, including China, in non-military government expenditures related to space (e.g., Nasa).

As an aside, our war colleges, DARPA, and the armed services themselves routinely publish new material on cutting edge tactics and strategy. The recent “Mosaic Warfare” concept introduced by DARPA is one example. The US military innovates. By contrast, the Chinese military is afflicted with “peace disease” and inadequate training (here’s just one recent article on this from the South China Morning Post, no less). You cannot innovate very well if you struggle with the basics.

No, you Don’t Win a War because your Economy is twice the size of your Foe’s

In a separate article, Musk is quoted as saying “The foundation of war is economics…If you have half the resources of the counterparty then you better be real innovative, if you’re not innovative, you’re going to lose.” The context was China – arguing that one day China would have twice the GDP as the US, and that this could mean we’d lose out in armed conflict.

There are two important points to make about this:

1. Military spending is cumulative over time, so China would still have a LOT of catching up to do.

I’ve written about military R&D spending above, but suffice it to say, we also outspend China (and everyone else) in overall military spending (and that gap has been slightly widening in recent years, as we have been increasing our expenditure faster than China since the mid-2010s). While it’s true that if China were to have twice the economy of the US, they would likely begin spending more than us on their military (or at least they could).

However, a large portion of military spending persists in value for many years. A tank, ship, aircraft, artillery piece, truck, etc., paid for in 2005 still provides plenty of value today. Granted, it could be destroyed in a conflict, but the majority of our arsenal is still intact, despite the longest war in Afghanistan still going on (for at least 18 more months anyway). Certainly much of the expenditure is consumed each year – fuel, salary, ammunition, etc. – but the majority of it is not, because the majority is in expensive, and lasting, weapons systems (which usually have service lives measured in decades).

Furthermore, it is likely that what the US spends on its military has a value that persists longer than what China does (simply because a higher proportion of their spending is on things like salary which has minimal value in future years, and a lower proportion on things like R&D which yield fruits in years to come). But for the sake of this, we’ll assume the future value of a given year’s defense spending for both countries declines at the same rate.

Between 2000 and 2018 the US has cumulatively spent $11.97 trillion on defense (2017 USD). By contrast, in the same time period China has only spent about $2.48 trillion (2017 USD). They would have a LOT of catching up to do once their economy is bigger. (source).

And two more minor points:

If China begins to spend a disproportionately high amount on defense before they have a bigger economy than the US, then they may never have a bigger economy – after all, unsustainably outsized defense spending played a role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union!

The US additionally enjoys a sizable gap in the institutional effectiveness of our major weapon systems – one example is that we have had a blue water navy for decades and therefore know how to operate carrier strike groups effectively, whereas China struggles to have a green water navy. Having the officers, programs, and training needed to operate major strike groups that can project power takes time, which money cannot buy.

2. Plenty of wars have been won by the smaller economy

Musk is also simply wrong on a basic fact – the foundation of war isn’t the economy. A sufficiently large economy is necessary to have the means to win a war, yes. But it doesn’t matter what the other side’s economy is, in relation to yours. Compare data on wins and losses of wars from places like COW (correlates of war, a scholarly database for data on warfare), and the economies of each side and you will not see much of a correlation.

To whit: the US economy was more than twice the size of North Korea’s, and Vietnam’s. France also had a much bigger economy than the NVA in the 1950’s. Israel did not have as big an economy as the combined total of the many belligerents it faced in 1967 and 1973.

How about the one example of the biggest conflict in all of history – the Eastern Front of World War 2? About nine of every eleven German military casualties in WWII were in the Eastern Front against the Soviets. The Germans invaded in 1941 with about 4 million men (by contrast, the invasion of Normandy in 1944 by the allies had only 1.4 million men). The army groups in the Eastern Front were much larger than anywhere else during WW2. The battles and campaigns were much vaster. And it was the longest lasting theater of war (it predated the US entry into the war, and after the fall of France in 1940 the allies couldn’t do too much in Europe until Operations Husky and Avalanche when the US and UK invaded Italy in 1943).

So, this is the biggest possible example we can draw from – massive mechanized armies waging war with only their economies determining who will win? How did this example shake out? When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 it had a bigger economy. And it maintained a bigger one every single year of the war except the last one (1945) when the Soviet economy was finally about 10% bigger than Germany’s. In 1942 Germany had one and a half times the GDP of the Soviets, in 1943 it was still about 1.4 times larger. In 1944 Germany’s GDP peaked for the war years, although the Soviet’s had grown such that Germany only had a 20% lead. (source).

In other words, the Soviets won despite having a much lower GDP four out of the five war years. Additionally, they were the ones invaded – their population, industry and economy was completely in turmoil the entire time! (Though, to be fair, the US provided much needed help in the way of trucks, vehicles, etc. to the Soviets. I’m skeptical the total of these contributions came close to bridging the gap in GDP, however).

The list can go on and on, but suffice it to say, the relative size of one’s economy compared to your enemy’s is not a particularly decisive factor in war.

Elon Musk doesn’t know what he thinks he knows about armed conflict.

Next: Elon Musk doesn’t know what he thinks he knows – China Edition