When mechs are raised as a subject among sci-fi enthusiasts, the talk invariably and rapidly turns to the question of why we don't already have them and whether we ever will.
There are really four current reasons why we don't already have mechs as a battlefield asset:
Technically speaking, this is the biggest challenge we have yet to overcome. Walking on two legs is hard. Look at how long it takes infant humans to learn to walk (12-18 months) compared to infants of other species. Quadruped prey species without burrows or nests, like deer or antelope, can walk within minutes of being born and run within hours.
We achieve our upright motion through a highly sophisticated sense of balance which is easily disrupted, as you'll know if you've ever drunk alcohol, stood up too quickly or just, y'know, got a bit older than average. We can do clever stuff with gyroscopes, these days, and Boston Dynamics is achieving amazing things with their quadruped Spot and, now, bipedal Atlas concepts. But although these videos are extraordinary we shouldn't imagine that these designs are anywhere close to ready for battlefield applications.
It's not just about stability, but also about self-correction (avoiding falls), self-righting (getting up from falls) and robustness (not getting damaged by falls), which brings me to the second challenge:
Volume increases geometrically with scale. So an object that is twice as large has four times the volume. This is why we don't have giant ants or, indeed, giants.
And, when you're talking about big chunks of military hardware, an increase in volume means a proportionate increase in weight. So even if we imagine BD's Atlas as human-sized combat robot, a mech-sized equivalent even only four times larger will be sixteen times as heavy.
Modern tanks get away with this because they distribute their weight over two sets of tracks. This is what stops them either getting bogged down or from destroying the road they drive along... mostly.
By contrast, mechs have to put their weight on two or - in some, slightly more realistic cases - four legs. Legs tend to end on fair small surfaces, so given the enormous weight of such machines, they become extremely likely to crush roads, sink into soft earth and sand, and struggle with anything but flat, featureless terrain.
Even assuming that the first two challenges can be overcome - we're nearly there on the balance thing and many new armour technologies are permitting lighter and liMayghter armour plating with equal or better protection - we are left with the fact that walking places is slow. Whilst weight and volume increase geometrically, leg length is still arithmetic. A thirty-foot tall mech will have a leg length roughly five times that of a six-foot human, whilst being more than twenty-five times heavier, even with lighter armour and other materials.
It is just at the edge of belief that, in perfect conditions, a mech this tall might be able to move as fast a 50kph, but this still makes them substantially slower than a modern MBT, with top speeds in excess of 80kph.
Maybe an increased agility compared to an MBT would compensate for this but, in practice, the ability to respond to an exploit shifts in a battle - to reinforce a weak point or send additional power to a breakthrough - lies in speed.
Last, and probably the one that absolutely clinches the fact that near-future, mundane warfare will never see real battlemechs in play, is the issue of profile. That is, mechs are tall.
Survival on the battlefield relies on the ability to make use of terrain and cover to protect your vital systems - mobility and crew. Whereas mechs make a point to taking all of those things and raising them up right where everyone can see them!
This is an invitation to get shot and one which most mechs aren't designed to avoid.
So... No Mechs Ever?
But don't worry, mech fans. There are still reasons why we may, one day, see mechs on the battlefield.
The first is in a much smaller incarnation better called a "battlesuit". These would be 2-3 times the size of a human, providing individual protection, vastly increased carrying capacity (to allow for heavy weapons at the infantry level) and being super-intimidating to the civpop and enemy (assuming they don't have their own) whilst still being able to make use of cover and move at least as fast as other infantry and probably faster.
The big downside with battlesuits is their inability to enter human-sized buildings. As a result, they would need to deploy alongside regular infantry in urban environments and with close regular infantry support in other environments.
The other option for battlesuits is for them to provide a "safe hub" for a human controller of remote drones - flying for reconnaissance, and ambulatory for exploring and controlling interior spaces. Imagine one person inside a big Atlas suit controlling five or six smaller Atlas robots.
The second reason we might see mechs deployed is in civpop control scenarios, where they would effectively be terror weapons, designed to intimidate and suppress a dominated citizenry. A more dystopian vision, to be sure, and not one designed to make mech fans feel warm and cosy, but an option nevertheless.
The third reason we might see mechs deployed is in a more far-future scenario in which we want to explore and possibly conquer distant worlds with different atmospheres and gravities to those we are used to. In these cases, the elevated position of the mech is an advantage, helping the explorer see further and providing a slow, steady, responsive platform from which to study a new world.
The last reason I think we are likely to see mechs - albeit not in a military context - in the not-too-distant future is my favourite: they are just so damn cool!
The most likely place for mechs to be developed is in the entertainment industry. Mech fighting, mech sports and mechs as "leisure vehicles" are all potential commercial exploitations of an idea that are, with the advance of technology, likely to move from possible to probable within the next few decades. Because if I know one thing about humans, it's that they do love building cool stuff and then smashing it up.
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