Taking on the Boloverse: Are giant tanks outdated?

Last week, I blogged about Keith Laumer’s The Compleat Bolo. This week’s blogpost is a discussion between Tom Kratman and I on the topic of whether giant tanks are a viable future technology.

Tom and I are collaborating to turn his novella, Big Boys Don’t Cry (BBDC), into a novel. BBDC is not a Bolo story, but I need to understand the Boloverse to write the novel. As such, I’ve been reading some of the original Bolo books, starting with The Compleat Bolo. This is mostly a compilation of stories Keith Laumer wrote in the 1960s.

It’s not the size of your weapon…

I’m not the first person to revisit The Compleat Bolo.  In 2016, Alan Brown wrote a review, Who Guards the Guards? on the Tor.com website. I was especially interested when I read:

SF books do not always age well, and often have elements that a modern reader must overlook. The Bolos were definitely a creation of the Cold War mentality, when each side competed to build bigger and more powerful weapon systems. Future warfare, if it involves autonomous machines, will more likely be fought by swarms of small and nimble networked machines, rather than gigantic behemoths like Bolos

With a weapons platform mounted to a Talon robot, the SWORDS system allows soldiers to fire small arms weapons by remote control from as far as 1,000 meters away (image and caption from Wikipedia)

Alan’s analysis didn’t surprise me. The Free Companies in my Kokopelli universe police their company towns using a veritable ecosystem of small military robots. They’re based on some of today’s technologies (in operation or conceptual), such as the Foster-Miller TALON, HI-MEMS insect reconnaissance, or Aurora Excalibur military drone.

It does make sense that autonomous mobile weaponry will be smaller than military vehicles driven by people. They don’t need the space, or the support systems, to safely and comfortably carry humans around. Moreover, they use fewer resources to build and operate. Multiple tiny tanks are, also, less easy to target than one big tank.

My first question to Tom was therefore…

Why are we writing about future giant tanks? Aren’t they *just*  outdated Cold War tech with no relevance to today’s battlefield?

TOM: There’s a concept Heinlein mentioned in Starship Troopers that’s a PhD paper for someone, someday.  This was the idea of “combat ecology”.  It could mean protection of the environment during combat or training operations, but I doubt he meant it that way.  Rather, I think he was referring to the interaction and evolution of arms due to their interplay against each other. Also, the development of doctrine that went along with them. 

Part of this is economic/logistic.  You don’t want a system that is infinitely cool if it costs too much, or is too hard to maintain, or cannot cover enough of the Earth’s surface.  For example, imagine the United States fielded a single, 1.2 million ton, aircraft carrier, with over a thousand planes on it.  Sounds cool, right?  But it cannot control an iota more of the Earth’s surface than one of 100k tons, leaving the rest of it open to an enemy.

A race to the biggest

That’s what’s behind the Bolo/Ratha (Ratha is SOOOO much better a name, you know…)  Maybe we came upon an enemy that used them, and so we had to.  Maybe the early ones were just enough for the job, but then an enemy built bigger, better ones, and we had to upgrade…and the race was on.  Maybe, given that they’re fighting at the end of supply lines, they had to carry more on board.  

Flyswatters and military bug drones

I once had a conversation with someone in DARPA who was working on the itty-bitty bug-sized drone program for MOUT (city fighting…in British terms FISCH and CHIPS).  He wasn’t infantry, so I started asking questions about what he knew about what an infantry platoon will do to a building in preparation for battle. 

“Not much.”  So, I explained. 

Then, I asked him the one word question, “Flypaper?” 

Crickets… They hadn’t even considered that as a response to these ever so cool nano-drone swarms.  (I’ve actually done that…mmm…three or four times, I think, to high-end Wunderwaffe programs; these guys almost never understand the environment.  I think I personally killed the electronic explosive sniffer by mentioning, “Spray bottles?”)

Little robots also give a hint for a reason for big ones, brain power.  And, if I recall, I showed one problem with the Ratha being the control centre for them; massive EMP and interference.  

Redundant carrying capacity

There is another reason for giant tanks, and it also relates to combat ecology.  People have been predicting the death of the tank for about 75 years now.  Tanks still dominate the battlefield and show no sign of going extinct.  A bit over a century ago the French, in particular, were thinking about torpedo boats as the answer to Britain’s battleship supremacy.  The battleships didn’t go away to those, and when they did go away it was to ships every bit as big, and more powerful, using a different approach entirely.  Why?  

 It has to do with what is called redundant carrying capacity.  Missiles that can destroy tanks can only be so big and still be man-portable.  The tank can just keep lathering on armour and other defences because it has the power to do so and carry them.  Battleships can add smaller guns in mounts (not turrets; a naval affectation) to deal with the torpedo boats and blisters to deal with the torpedoes, and still be in no danger of sinking or capsizing.  

Vivienne: By battleships, do you mean dreadnoughts? Weren’t they obsolete by WWII? Big ships with big guns had been replaced by a variety of specialist ships.

No, Dreadnoughts (aka BBs) were not obsolete by WWII. They weren’t obsolete in 1982, when I passed under the bow of the New Jersey on my way to the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama. It was on its way through the [Panama] Canal to go to Lebanon.   They’re not obsolete now, just too damned expensive to run in the Navy’s opinion. 

HMS Dreadnought was just the ship that gave its name to what we now call the “battleship.”  It was different for having a uniform main battery, for its size, weight, speed, and armored protection, plus fire control.  All battleships are really Dreadnoughts, but the name fell out of favour.  New Jersey is a dreadnought we just call a battleship.

Dreadnoughts were, and are still, peerless for pounding shore defences.  Unlike other modern ships, they can shrug off hits fairly easily by anything less than their own class of big guns.  They laugh at anti-shipping missiles.  They can contemplate torpedo hits with a degree of equanimity.  They could, and can, pound each other and smaller ships.  They were not especially vulnerable to aerial attack unless they didn’t have air cover of their own.  Note that [German WWII battleship] Scharnhorst sank [HMS] Glorious and not the other way around.  And they weren’t obsolete at Guadalcanal, either.  You [the British] knocked the Bismarck out of action with very heavy gun fire; the airplanes only damaged it and the torpedos that finally sank it couldn’t have been launched close enough if gunfire hadn’t basically disarmed it.  

On military mafias

Military services are run by mafias. That is to say collections of people with similar technical and tactical backgrounds and prejudices, who rise to political prominence for reasons that are often misunderstood and equally often unfortunate.  The US Air Force, for example, is run by the bomber and fighter mafias, often acting at cross purposes, where aerial transport and close air support are poor relations…or have you missed how the Air Force has been trying to get rid of the A-10 for over 30 years.  

New Jersey was not gotten rid of because it was obsolete as a concept, but because it was too expensive for the carrier- and submarine-mafia-led Navy to want to pay for.  It was also at least arguable that it couldn’t be rewired for modern electronics, but that’s begging the question of whether it even needed much in the way of modern electronics.  They never even contemplated a work around because the mafias wanted the BBs gone even from contemplation.  

With our battleship fleet still ruined, damaged and awaiting repairs, or a-building, the carrier mafia took over the navy, the political control of which they’ve in good part managed to keep.  Given the appalling record of our submarines in early WW II, the sub mafia was not able to gain much control of the Navy.  But with the arrival of nukes, this changed to where they are peers, at least, of the carrier mafia.  Note that PT boats [patrol torpedo boats], which were never as effective as their skippers liked to claim, never became an effective mafia.

Vivienne: Am I right that you’re arguing that super-battleships and battleships went obsolete, but tanks are still around because of redundant carrying capacity? i.e. if you want to stop a tank, you need a big missile to destroy it entirely, and there’s a limit to the size of missile you can carry without using another big tank. However, if you need to sink a boat, that can be done with small guns or small missiles?

No, you need much larger and stronger warheads to take out BBs.  Their armour is simply immense.  They are also armoured citadels, carefully calculated / designed and built to be able to lose damned near everything outside the citadel, and still stay afloat so they can be towed back to the shipyard and be rebuilt.  Hell, look up “all or nothing armour.”  

So, no, what I am saying is that because of redundant carrying capacity both tanks and battleships…and, to be sure, carriers…survived well after the time they were confidently predicted to be hopelessly obsolete.  

You’re also still missing the biggie; a big tank can carry a big gun.  A bigger tank can carry a bigger gun.  A bigger gun requires a bigger tank.  A bigger tank can carry more armour…ad infinitum.  Let’s see, the Renault FT weighed about seven tons in 1918.  Twenty years later that had quadrupled to about 28 tons in, say, the Char B1.  Seven years later that had doubled again to 56 tons in a Tiger 1.  Things stabilised there for quite a while since the only people using tanks en masse had been clients who didn’t develop their own and had to make do.  Nonetheless, M1 [Abrams] and Merkava weigh over 70 tons now.  Combat ecology; things will grow on their own until they can’t.

NEXT WEEK: I argue with Tom about my area of expertise; recent developments in AI.


  • A lot of what makes Bolos plausible is the assumption that they will both be armed with nuclear-grade weapons, and have to routinely defend against same.

    The Compleat Bolo has “A Short History of the Bolo Fighting Machines” at the very end.

    Per that, by the time of Mark XII bolo, standard armament was a main gun rated for half a megaton per second discharge rate.

    and Bolos are routinely expected to take near-hits from multiple tactical nuclear weapons and keep on fighting.

    Per this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=by1xpy8ob8E

    when there is a 22 kiloton nuclear explosion, expanding in a sphere, and there is a solid aluminum bowling ball 25 meters away from the detonation point, that bowling ball will lose about 3 CM, 1.2 inches, of it’s outer surface to the exploding plasma field.

    if a Mark XII Bolo has a main gun 23 times as powerful, which propagates in a direct line, not a uniformly expanding sphere…. we’re talking AT LEAST 2 feet of steel armor lost per hit.

    And a main gun that powerful is fully capable of hitting targets IN SPACE, and is mounted on a chassis which is theoretical capable of HIDING from opponents in space by, say, taking cover behind a small mountain.

    In the combat enviroment where half-megaton yields are NORMAL, the SMALLEST vehicle you could possibly consider would be about the size of a modern 60-ton main battle tank…. and even those aren’t going to last very long, especially not if they have to protect a human crew.

    Anything smaller than that is a purely disposable scouting platform or expandable mine. there’s no way you’re getting it back when the battle is over: expected survival time in combat is probably less than 5 minutes, since that’s about as long as it’s going to take for a nuclear explosion to occur somewhere vaguely nearby.

  • “With a weapons platform mounted to a Talon robot, the SWORDS system allows soldiers to fire small arms weapons by remote control from as far as 1,000 meters away”

    Have these people not seen “Screamers”? Or perhaps that movie is why they chose to call this SWORDS…

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