If there’s anything that everyone knows about anime, even non-fans, it is that there are giant robots which fight each other. Well okay, that and the whole tentacles thing… but this article is about the robots. Specifically, the robots in Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, which I am told is one of the most influential shows in the genre. And, even more specifically, how much military sense the show makes. Spoilers: not a lot.
The premise of the show is fairly simple. At some indeterminate point in the future, Earth is oppressing space colonies placed at the Lagrange points with military might. The colonies each send a giant space robot to Earth along with their teenage pilots, in order to conduct commando raids (or terrorist attacks, depending on how you feel about them) and rid Earth of weapons along the way. There is a fair amount of drrrrama along the way, and since we’re talking about teenage boys there is also some poor decision-making (the two points are not unrelated).
As usual, I don’t want to spend much time talking about this as an anime. It’s a 1990s show intended for a teenage male audience, in terms of plot and dialogue you can probably guess what it’s like. Don’t go in expecting fantastic visuals, sound, or indeed much of anything else. Where it might surprise you is in its characters. All of the significant female characters are fairly solid and are treated respectfully, with not a single raised skirt or bouncing boob anywhere in sight. They also take their own actions and drive the plot (such as it is) forward, which is quite a refreshing distinction.
There are a couple of other things which I noticed in a less positive way, though. For one thing, the hairdos. DEAR GOD THE HAIRDOS. I don’t know if this is how anime got a reputation for bizarrely impractical hair, but it certainly didn’t help. And for another thing, the main character seems able to pull a wide array of pistols out of his black lycra bike shorts. Or maybe it’s his hair, I don’t know. Neither option seems very comforting. Oh, and here’s a note for other anime creators: do not name the second, third and fourth characters “Two”, “Three”, and “Four”, even in non-English languages. Japanese audiences might not notice it, but it makes it impossible for foreign audiences to take seriously. Just trying to help.
When I watch a show for this series I try to watch the entire thing, or at least an entire season. Partly because some shows take time to reveal everything, partly because of my misplaced sense of fair play. In this case, however, I wasn’t able to do that. There’s a great deal of Gundam Wing to wade through, and I could only make it about a third of the way before my will to life started fading. But I hung on until I had seen enough about the military mistakes to have something to say. Don’t say I never do nuthin’ for ya.
Your Space Robot Sucks
Before we begin, I’ve got some bad news for my 12 year old self: mecha are stupid. Yes, I know they look cool; yes, I know they practically define our popular image of future warfare. But they are completely and irrevocably dumb for the reality of warfare. Let’s take this step by step.
The big advantage of mecha, so we are told, is that they are heavily armoured and can carry powerful weaponry. But the same applies to a tank as well, and tanks have a much lower profile. Mecha can lie down in order to hide, but a tank is already “lying down”, and can still move and shoot while it’s in that posture. That point about profile height is not insignificant, on a modern battlefield it’s much harder to locate a target than it is to destroy it. If your space robot is towering 15 metres above terrain, the idiot pilot that took it there will shortly receive an object lesson in the value of cover and concealment. Turning yourself into a firepower magnet is not a good move.
What about their armour? “Gundanium alloy” is very strong, and apparently can shrug off most weapons. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter much. We know that the mecha can be damaged by weapons that are common in the setting. Even if they couldn’t, however, it still wouldn’t help. An attack that doesn’t penetrate the armour is still dumping a big load of energy into the mech in question, and that energy has to go somewhere. Shock damage to internal systems (and the pilot) is less showy than blasting a big hole in the front, but it will do the job just fine. And HESH warheads, which are all about transmitting shock through armour, would seem to be an excellent way of dealing with the problem.
The usual counterpoint is that mecha are very agile, and they can dodge incoming attacks. But can they really? A tank is wide and flat to spread out its weight over the area of its tracks; as a result tanks have a relatively low ground pressure. That lets them move without sinking into the ground, which a 60-tonne chunk of metal will most assuredly do – there’s a reason heavy vehicles are very careful about where they go. A gundam, on the other hand, spreads its weight over the area covered by its feet. These are smaller than the treads of a tank, but I doubt the gundam is any lighter so the ground pressure will be much higher. Put simply, there’s a good chance that mecha will have trouble moving on anything except hard surfaces.
As battlefield combat systems, mecha are a dead loss. They can’t hide well, can’t move well, and have no advantage in terms of weaponry over other systems which are much simpler and cheaper. In fact, they only have one factor which is definitely in their favour – even the small ones look thoroughly imposing, so if you want something to terrify civilians with (as opposed to people who might be able to shoot back) then it does make a degree of sense.
And guess what? Early on in the show it becomes clear that the mecha in Gundam Wing were developed with that as a design goal. They were intended to frighten civilian populations in urban areas, which neatly avoids the mobility issue and makes use of their one advantage. I’ll admit I was pretty impressed to hear this acknowledged. So credit where it’s due: in this setting, mecha do serve a purpose.
The real question, of course, is how that purpose fits with the goals of the different groups involved. The United Earth Sphere Alliance is doing the oppressing initially, and as we have seen the intimidation factor makes sense there. Unfortunately the Alliance forces have taken the idea to extremes, and are now using mecha for all combat duties in all environments. They have specialized versions for ground, sea, air, and space combat, and it turns out that none of them are much good for actual fighting.
Part of the problem is that the mecha are basically eggshells armed with hammers – the mobile suits carry so much firepower that one hit is all it takes to disable or destroy their target. This turns battles between mobile suits into battles for the first salvo. Standard weaponry for these suits is what seems to be an automatic cannon in the 50-70mm range, and a burst of shells from one of these is entirely adequate to wreck most suits.
Another part of the problem is that, once again, the local military doesn’t seem to have any actual soldiers in it. Their coordination is terrible, and they tend to get defeated in detail whenever they encounter opposition that can put up any sort of resistance at all. Perhaps this is a result of going too long without encountering effective resistance, but while individual Alliance members can be quite good their cooperative skills are terrible.
The space colonies, on the other hand, are employing a weird mix of sense and nonsense. Peculiarly, the operations being conducted do make a degree of sense – if you’re being oppressed by the global hegemon, then sneaking in commando teams to wreak havoc in their rear areas is not actually a stupid idea. And it is demonstrated several times that Alliance space surveillance capabilities are poor at best, so there is a reasonable chance of landing the operatives on Earth. So far, so good. The problem is what they decided to send.
See, the gundams that were sent to Earth by the space colonies are not exactly subtle. They require maintenance and ammunition at the very least, as well as a place to hide and transport to the location for their next daring raid / act of terror (depending on how we see them). All of which the pilots manage to find with varying degrees of success and keep on conducting operations, which only goes to prove the point that the Alliance should not be left in charge of anything more complex than a crayon. However the gundams also have a very limited ability to identify targets for those operations. They rely heavily on intelligence passed down from the off-world colonies. On more than one occasion those communication links are broken into and false information planted, with disastrous results.
There is also nothing stopping the Alliance forces from physically travelling to the colonies – which is exactly what they do at one point – and taking the struggle into the colonies themselves. This is something the colonies should theoretically be desperate to avoid at all costs: a space colony like this is a fantastically complicated set of interconnected systems. There’s only one way for everything to go right, and millions of ways for things to go wrong and kill everyone in the colony. Colonists do not want to fight a pitched battle in their life support system! But, once again, anime dream logic takes hold: the only space-based weaponry is a) right next to the colonies and b) firmly under the control of the Alliance. One wonders why they even bother sending troops there at all.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the colonies strategy is that they don’t appear to have one. It is never described what they are actually fighting for, nor how they could tell when it had been achieved. Stop Earth harassing the colonies? The harassment only started because you sent huge space robots to Earth to wreck their shit. Destroy Earth’s weapons? They’ll make more. Destroy the factories as well? At that point, questions should be asked as to who precisely is doing the harassing here. Kill the people who are directing the harassment? Someone will replace them, don’t worry. Kill the replacements too? Why not kill everyone and invade Poland?
The point is that there’s no end-game in sight, nothing that would count as a victory for the space colonies. The alliance isn’t much better off, now that intimidation has failed they don’t seem to have much to back up their demands. Weirdly, the only people in this setting who seem to know what they want and be taking effective steps to get it are the Organisation of the Zodiac, a secretive group who are ultimately behind the conflict in the first place. This leaves us with a bunch of space robots stuck on Earth, fighting an undeclared war against forces who are not technically their enemies, and generally making a mockery of the whole idea of “fighting for peace”.
That’s not to say that there are no ways to fight a conflict like this, of course. But that’s a big topic, so it needs an article to itself…
Question of the post: Take the situation that exists in the show, Earth versus her orbital colonies in a hostile stand-off. What are the options for action by the parties involved, and how could they be defended against?