A fawning, majestic “history of the Ewoks” lie

With apologies to Ghost of a flea for stealing the title.


I am going to end up seeing Avatar, no doubt about it; I am also certain it is going to be visually stunning and adequately entertaining.  It is, however, going to fall prey to the usual Hollywood bowdlerisation of military priorities, strategy and tactics, which will prevent me from enjoying it fully.  The Powers That Be in La-La Land bank on the public’s ignorance of warfighting, and will undoubtedly show us advanced weaponry used without any regard for realistic operational doctrine.

This is why we see facepalm anachronisms like the light-speed-capable Millenium Falcon fighting off TIE fighters with WW2-style manually-targeted gun turrets, instead of an automated, precision-guided point defence system like a RAM launcher or Phalanx CIWS.  Also why the Wachowski brothers gave us manually-targeted APU suits in the Matrix sequels.  Radar and infrared seekers enabling BVR (beyond visual range) kills are a day-to-day reality for men and women in uniform today, but for the purposes of Hollywood’s increasingly tired storytelling, modern search, identification and targeting sensors just do not exist.  Similarly, combined-arms tactics in which naval, air and land assets launch a coordinated effort on a target are very rarely depicted.

Without having seen the film yet, and trying not to get into spoiler territory, here’s some other things I’ll bet you are not going to see in Cameron’s Avatar:

  • Active homing/self-guided weapon systems. Your radar- or infrared-guided projectile has a much better chance of hitting a fast-moving or visually occluded target than you do.

Why it’s important: Baseball players, on average, hit the ball in only one of every three appearances at the plate.  You need better odds than that when the baseball is capable of wiping out you and your squad-mates.  This is why bombers don’t carry human gunners for point defense anymore.  Human gunners use the highly inefficient spray-and-pray method; automated systems (i.e. guided missiles) can take out a target much faster, more precisely, at greater ranges, and with greater effectiveness.

Movies where it would have been useful: The entire Star Wars series; the entire Star Trek series; The Matrix sequels; anything featuring a starship or airborne vehicle of any kind.

  • Aerospace dominance systems. We all know what air dominance systems are, right?  Aerial weapon systems designed for Day One of a conflict, those that help allied pilots to drive the enemy from the skies, allowing the mud-movers (close air support) and trash haulers (airlifters) to keep the grunts on the ground alive.  Sorry helo drivers, but air dominance rides are never rotary-wing craft; in an Avatar xeno-exploration context, it ought to be an exoatmospheric fighter jam-packed with sensors and self-guided weaponry.

Why it’s important: If you can’t command the sky (or the space beyond it), you are going to have a hell of a tough time giving fire support, resupply and medevac to those on the ground.  Which means your ground war is going to be that much more difficult.  We can see from the Avatar trailers that the Na’vi have aerial steeds that they ride, and that those animals can be employed effectively against the humans’ slower utility rotorcraft.  An actual military force with a reasonable expectation of encountering aerial opposition would not deploy vulnerable transport and CAS aircraft without appropriate air cover.

Movies where it would have been useful: Starship Troopers, War of the Worlds, The Fifth Element, Stargate.

  • C4ISR systems. The orbital, aerial and ground-based command, control, communications, intelligence and surveillance assets that tell you where your forces are, where the enemy forces are, what his posture and readiness are, and so on.  When the USAF took out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Al Qaeda’s top man in Iraq) in 2002, it took just six minutes for a pair of F-16s to drop some precision-guided ordnance on him.  But in order to get the identification and tracking information to those F-16s, it took 6,000 hours (250 days) of Predator surveillance time.  Now imagine what that would mean in an xeno-exploration context.  Probably a GPS-like satellite constellation for precision surface navigation, another constellation for meteorological, radar, thermal, infrared and optical coverage, some kind of satcom system for ground units to communicate with orbital facilities, ROVs and UASes by the dozen, et cetera.

Why it’s important: If you don’t know what the enemy is up to, and where, you will have a tough time forming a game plan to deny him his objectives.  I’m sure Avatar will feature some kind of C4ISR systems (not least of which is the Na’vi clone/avatar itself!), but I would bet that they will fall short of even the basic capabilities USAF has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan today.  Today’s assets can detect and track vehicles and individuals—by radar, infrared and optical means—collating data from multiple sources to build a detailed picture of that person or vehicle’s daily habits and haunts.  What do you want to bet that in Avatar, the Na’vi will undoubtedly be able to assemble a large group of personnel and equipment in order to engage in a climactic final set-piece battle, without the human military commanders spotting that sort of widespread preparatory activity and deciding to derail it?

Movies where it would have been useful: Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Predator, Aliens, Starship Troopers, Jurassic Park, Escape from New York, Children of Men, War of the Worlds, The Matrix sequels.

  • Antiaircraft artillery. These are the mobile and fixed missiles and guns that protect friendly troop concentrations and ground installations from air attack.  Every decent-sized ground force carries at least rudimentary man-portable AAA missiles; larger concentrations will have dedicated AAA vehicles (which have radar guidance and do not depend on human reaction times and manual gunnery).

Why it’s important: If you cannot threaten the enemy’s close air support, then your ground elements can be attacked with impunity from the air, and there goes your whole mission.  Avatar‘s human troops should not be advancing without AAA support, especially in an environment in which everything—flora and fauna included—is hostile.  Why lose a bunch of your ground combat power to an alien archaeopteryx or pterosaur if you don’t have to?  Imagine what even a single LAV-AD could do to a half-dozen Na’vi on their flying mounts.  It wouldn’t be pretty.

Movies where it would have been useful: Empire Strikes Back, Return of the JediStarship Troopers, The Matrix sequels, Stargate.

  • Indirect fire support. Artillery, king of battle.  Large guns firing projectiles on ballistic arcs in support of ground troops who need something, or someone, blown to bits.  Artillery exists to cause confusion and shock in enemy formations.  Usually placed in semi-secure areas out of the forward area, so that the gun crews are not in jeopardy themselves.  Close air support, although direct fire of a sort, is generally a longer-ranged proxy for artillery.

Why it’s important: Having overwhelming firepower that can be called upon quickly, and is not itself in close contact with the enemy, is an innately good thing.  Causing your enemy to drop what he’s doing and cower in a hole for a few minutes means that’s a few extra minutes you’ll have to either 1) get into a better position to kill him or 2) get out of Dodge.  It is important to note that scifi’s stupidest enemies (namely the evil Empire of Star Wars fame) never, ever fights with either close air support or indirect fire.  Small wonder that they always lose.  Similarly, expect Avatar‘s human bad guys to not bother with it.

Movies where it would have been useful: Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Predator, Aliens, Starship Troopers, Children of Men, War of the Worlds, Stargate.

  • Armed overwatch. This is where a direct-fire element (aircraft, or for a small unit, a squad heavy weapon with a commanding field of fire) is assigned to provide supporting fire for a ground element conducting a patrol.  The idea is that if the ground element runs into trouble and needs to be helped out quickly, its fire support is already assigned, available and in the area.

Why it’s important: Because the enemy tends to be unpredictable.

Movies where it would have been useful: Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Predator, Aliens, Starship Troopers, Escape from New York, War of the Worlds, The Matrix sequels, Stargate.

  • Fire and manoeuvre, cover and concealment. Hollywood heroes and villains alike rarely ever fight using terrain features.  Hollywood armoured vehicles never use hull-down or prepared firing positions, never fire on the move, never try to do anything other than plow forward in an easily predictable line and hope that the armour is enough to keep them alive.  Human tanks crews never, ever do this, except when appearing in movies.  Hollywood soldiers rarely fire from cover, and rarely move once engaged, preferring to pop their head and fire around the same corner sixteen times, despite the fact that any non-moron enemy would simply train his sights on where a head last appeared, and wait ten seconds for it to appear again.  Hollywood soldiers tend to stand out in the open and fire away from the hip, John Wayne style, regardless of the tactical situation.  I expect Avatar‘s human troops to wade in, human wave style, and not take any particular measures to use any sort of sane small-unit tactics.

Why it’s important: Repetition and predictability in battle is stupid.  It will get you killed.  You can test this for yourself in a non-lethal way at your local paintball field.  Don’t maneuver while firing; just fire from the same position repeatedly, with short intervals.  See how long it takes someone to paste you.

Movies where it would have been useful: Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Predator, Aliens, Starship Troopers, Escape from New York, War of the Worlds, The Matrix sequels, Stargate.

As you can see, Hollywood’s more popular outings that feature squads of soldiers in sci-fi settings tend to deploy them with inadequate firepower, zero doctrinally-appropriate supporting forces, virtually no C4ISR to speak of, and the logistics chain is of course not even an afterthought.  I merely hope to be entertained by Avatar, but since the nature of Hollywood is to screw up military doctrine, I am sure it will have a lot of cringe-worthy scenes.  At least it will be pretty.  And if nothing else, it will have achieved its primary goal of drawing everyone (even the skeptics) into the theatre.

TANGENTIALLY RELATED: Speaking of facepalm, my wife could probably tell you that I have mastered the “implied facepalm“.  It’s a little more subtle but, executed carefully, conveys all of the gravity.

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2 Responses
  1. MichaelB says:

    The other day I was flipping around and found The Hunt for Red October. There’s a good movie to illustrate how real tension can be created without the silly Hollywood tropes. At the climax of the movie, after Alec Baldwin & co. have gotten together with Sean Connery on the Russian sub, a Soviet Alfa shoots a torpedo at the Red October. The Russian Captain says to turn towards it, and the American captain says that’s crazy. Of course the Russian Captain knew that the normal safety setting on Soviet Torpedoes would prevent it from detonating if they could close the distance fast enough – hence the turn. But the whole scene is filled with tension and suspense, despite it basically being a bunch of guys in a room with a bunch of funny looking consoles that drive the ship.

    Now of course they took some liberties in making that movie too, though it was better than most. But the fact is, the way things really work is also filled with tension and suspense. At least, once you edit out the 6 months of waiting/getting ready… but that you can quite sensibly leave out. It’s a real shame that the entertainment business either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about that kind of accuracy. I bet that overall it would make for better movies to boot.