Friday, November 30, 2018

Gundams and Giant Robots on the Anime Battlefield

Back in 2008, the Japan Science and Technology Agency published an estimated cost to build a Gundam.  The cost for the parts was $725,000,000 or three quarters of a billion bucks.  This doesn't include R&D, software, or engineering effort to create, assemble, and make the parts work together. Not adjusting for inflation, or anything else, that is still a pretty hefty bill even today.  Here are some estimated costs from the Internet about some other weapons systems / weapons for comparison.  This cost was probably for the RX-78-2 Model - not exactly a mass production model, but even if you cut the price in half for a production model that is still $300 million.
  • A Nimitz class carrier is $4.5 billion, with the newer Gerald R. Ford super carriers costing $9 billion.  This is without planes or missiles or bombs.
  • F-35 Lightning fighter is supposed to be around $80 million, once it is in full production, even though it is about $90 million right now.  
  • An F-15X or Super Hornet is in the $60 - $70 million range.  
  • An M1 battle tank is about $9 million, with a tank gun round for it running at $5,000.
  • A Hellfire anti-tank missile is $115 thousand.
  • A Tomahawk cruise missile is $1.5 million.
  • Rifle bullet is about $1.
From the numbers above, you can see that a giant robot is indeed pretty expensive.  An expensive weapons system like this needs to really prove its worth in battle.  And I'm pretty sure you are not going to make a giant robot with all of its tech cheaper than an F-35, so it is at least $100 million plus, but lets stick with $300 million.  Now we need to look at some of the attributes of a giant robot versus some other weapons systems to start looking at what its perceived effectiveness would be.

A twenty metre tall robot of human proportions is a big target (Gundam Unicorn height) and would probably weigh at least double or more than what a tank would weigh of the same size with thinner armour all around.  This would put it in the 100+ metric ton range, which is pretty heavy.  This machine is going to sink into the earth with every step and crack concrete when it runs (see Maus).  Fortunately, Gundams do have some advanced tech so they do not weigh this much.  When I wrote my mecha stories for Exocrisis Blue I did something similar with extreme mobility too.

Below are some specifications for a Gundam and some other weapons systems:
  • Gundam Unicorn is about 21 metres high, 4 metres wide with a base weight of 23 metric tons and a fully loaded weight of 43 tons (about the weight of a Russian T-80 tank).  I got these numbers from Gundam Wiki and I'm not sure how a Gundam doubles its weight when loaded (every weapon in the arsenal?)
  • M1 battle tank is 10 metres long, 4 metres wide, 2.5 metres high and weighs about 63 metric tons (heavier for the later versions).
  • F-15C fighter is 19.5 metres long, 13 metres wide, 5.63 metres high and weights about 12.7 metric tons empty, 20 tons loaded up.
So it looks like a Gundam is double the dimensions for a battle tank, is the length of an air superiority fighter, and has a weight that is in between that of a tank and a jet fighter.  A jet has many lightweight materials in it with powerful engines so that it can fly and carry both fuel and weapons.  A jet doesn't absorb or stop damage like a tank does with its heavy armour, but it does different amazing things like travel great distances, break the speed of sound, and carry big payloads.  Big anime robots, aka mobile suits are a cross between tanks and jets as they are very nimble for their size, can fly, and are more heavily armoured than a jet.  Big robots are a miracle of tech as they are packed full of electronics, software, advanced motors, amazing power plants, artificial muscles, alloys, and armour that is far more durable than Chobham in a tank.  I like giant robots, but you can tell that you have to really push the envelope to make them work like they do in an anime.  This includes Full Metal Panic, Aldnoah Zero, Gundam, Patlabor, etc.  Super robots like Mazinger are another story altogether.

In combat, big robots would need to be able to fulfill either a special mission like a raid or be able to take on massive numbers of conventional foes.  Super nimble robots able to dodge fire from tanks and take hits from missiles would work, but they have to be worth their price tag.  You can buy 30 M-1 tanks for the price of a production robot if it costs $300 million.  Any robot at this price has to be able to withstand hits from tank guns or anti-tank missiles.  It would suck for a $5 thousand dollar tank round or $100 thousand anti-tank missile to cripple a $300 million robot, especially as the robot is on the front line fighting, not like an aircraft carrier.  Gundams can take a huge amount of punishment and deal it out too, but you can imagine how many of these you could really afford, especially when you are talking about your enemies also having big robots to kill big robots at $300 million a pop.  BTW, Gundams are so effective, I don't know why you would build anything else in the various anime as they are like demi-god robots.
Big humanoid robots would also really not do well in built up urban environments - they would be like tanks - vulnerable to all kinds of enemy fire from cover, and hemmed in by the built-up environment.  In anime, they are generally too nimble in the best robots to be trapped, but that is anime for you.  So, big robots really are a kind of fun fantasy, especially when you imagine their weapons, power plants and armour employed in smaller conventional tanks or planes in a more cost effective package.  In the arms race, someone builds a better defence, but it doesn't take long for someone to build a better weapons to defeat that defence.

In the meantime, I still like big robot anime, as who wouldn't want to see one for real, and who wouldn't want to pilot one too!  Do see the giant Gundam in Odaiba if you are ever in Tokyo.  It is big and very cool.

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