how would you fight pacific rim’s giant monsters in the real world?

July 16, 2013

Yes, Pacific Rim is a loud popcorn movie best viewed with your brain operating at half capacity, just enjoying the show without asking any questions. And that’s exactly what makes it fun. This may shock film snobs and critics who review Oscar bait, but not every movie in theaters needs to be an epic character drama that explores the fundamental issues with existence and the human condition, or brutally cataloging a bloody genocide while repeatedly beating its viewers over the head with heavy-handed questions about morals, ethics, free will, and what lurks within us all. At the same time though, big budget Hollywood spectacles with thin plots are usually outsourced to Michael Bay, or directors who emulate his style, who latch on to formulas that even the writers of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller movies would find too flimsy and groan-inducing, then proceed to viciously drill them into your eyes to a soundtrack of explosions. Pacific Rim was thankfully made by Guillermo del Toro and easily avoids this trap by being a simple and very straightforward little tribute to giant robot vs. giant monster anime many twenty-somethings watched as kids.

But that said, there’s something just not right about humanoid robots brawling with giant beasts sent from another world through an undersea portal called The Breach. Jaegers might deliver a knockout punch to a 30 story Kaiju or pound one over the head with a container ship to give the monster a hell of a concussion, but the mechanics just don’t quite work. Kaijus are fleshy, which means they’re more flexible and heal minor cuts and scrapes quickly. By comparison, a Jaeger would be made of comparatively brittle metal alloys and have to be refurbished after every fight, making it extremely expensive and labor-intensive to operate. When the Kaijus appear every six months or so as they did at the beginning of the war, the cost can be managed. But as the giant brutes keep getting bigger and bigger, and start appearing as often as once a week, resources are quickly going to start running dry, so building ever more Jaegers would quickly become very difficult. No wonder that the bureaucrats who run the world in Pacific Rim want to shut down this once promising program for a wall to keep the Kaijus out. They can’t afford it anymore.

Of course one also wonders how they got the Jaegers to be bipedal at such a scale. Walking on two legs is very computationally expensive for a machine that’s as big as a high rise, and even a small bump in the road could send these robots falling, and falling badly. Not only that, but they give the Kaijus excellent points of attack: the ankles and the knees. To truly make their punches count, the Jaeger pilots have to get their robots to behave just like a human fighter and put the core and hips into the blow. Punching in a basic one-two sequence, the weight would swing from leg to leg, so a counter-attack from a Kaiju aimed at the thigh or the side of the knee could send a million tons of robot down hard with its head lined up for a finishing blow from above. You can see the same idea in mixed martial art disciplines which use stomps and side-knees in a clinch to shift an opponent’s weight so you can topple him and get full mount for a well placed elbow, or a swift hammer fist to the side of the head. Jaegers would simply not be flexible enough to survive this sort of assault in the real world. Many much less brittle and more coordinated humans aren’t without at least a little training or a whole lot of mass to counteract the impacts.

For better fight mechanics, I would have designed Jaegers to look more like sumo wrestlers. An extremely wide base either on tracks or hovering with the aid of nuclear powered jet engines, no legs, and stuffed with ranged weaponry to soften up the Kaiju as it charges. Large, thick, heavy arms with huge claws would pummel the monsters at close range and its barrel-like core would spin naturally, so tipping it over or even getting it off-balance would be a Herculean task, even for the fat Category 4 Kaiju which attacks Hong Kong in the movie’s second act. Its hull could be made of something flexible like kevlar to make it tougher for a Kaiju to bite through and diffuse a good deal of the force that would be generated by a direct hit. One could even imagine it pulling off a complicated sequence just by rotating around its axis. For example, it could hit a Kaiju with an enormous left hook starting about 30 degrees left off center, keep spinning until it can follow the punch with a right elbow at between 60 and 120 degrees right off center, and returning back with a left hammer fist and a right hook, using the hits on the Kaiju to redirect its momentum.

And while we’re redesigning the Jaegers, we should ask why they can’t be piloted remotely. We can control drones halfway across the world in real time and all of the infrastructure to pull off a similar feat with a giant robot seems to be in place in the film. To minimize lag, the pilots should be in the base from which their Jaegers would be launched, but they wouldn’t have to be in their robot. Their brain-machine interfaces with their co-pilots and with their machine are going to be implemented as an abstraction over the kernel of the Jaeger’s operating system anyway so the pilots could fight, lose, and be ready to fight again as soon as a new machine is ready to go. It’s actually kind of a no-brainer that allows them to switch tactics, pushing the Jaegers further and taking risks that could kill them if they were in the actual robot but win the day in the end. There would be a huge psychological boost from seeing a Kaiju on a big screen in a bunker instead of up close and personal, its fangs tearing through the cockpit and rattling the robot around. Yes, it’s not as heroic or dangerous, but much more militarily effective and politically beneficial.

But then again, all of this is based on the idea that Jaegers make for the best front-line defense when a Kaiju attacks. That’s not necessarily true. We know they can be killed by nukes, but the proposition of turning the world’s most populated coastlines into radioactive deserts is a tough sell and actually doing that will kill food production and give the Kaijus a beachhead from which they can mount assaults further and further inland. However, launching a very large kinetic kill vehicle from orbit, basically a huge spike dropped from a satellite, could hit a Kaiju with roughly the same yield as a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead without all the radiation. Currenly we can’t build and launch wepaons like this because they violate the Outer Space Treaty, but when there’s an angry horde of aliens that can flatten a city block with each step rampaging on Earth and all of the nations unite in building and deploying Jaegers, I’m sure exceptions could be made and the current space faring powers can launch a system of satellites ready to drive a super-heated alloy slug into a Kaiju at hypersonic speeds at a moment’s notice. Should that somehow fail and some time needs to be bought for another shot, Jaegers can coral the beast into the kill zone.

This is how you would fight a Kaiju in the real world. Orbiting KKV launchers that can fire off an exceptionally engineered slug at the planet below at a moment’s notice, drone bomber swarms, and giant mobile weapon platforms known as Jaegers, remotely piloted as a last line of defense against the nightmarish beasts. Pacific Rim’s spectacle is great for a live action anime movie, a solid tribute to the genre, and it creates tension by putting the main characters in real danger in the maws of the Kaiju, but if we were to translate any of it to the real world, it would be a militarily unsustainable strategy with little chance of actually working. The only worse strategy would be a giant wall to keep the monsters out, i.e. the Wall of Life being built in the movie, but it seems like the competent commanders in the Pacific Rim universe were all on leave throughout the war and this is why the world has been stuck with worse and worse ideas for fighting the alien titans. But hey, how mad can you be at a movie’s plot holes if it lets you mentally design giant robots and a swarm of global space-based defenses to fight aliens the size of an office block?

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  • TheBrett

    A couple of points.

    1. I do like the idea of designing the Jaegers to have fewer issues with balance, although there may have been other engineering concerns. Adding more mass to them may have made them unable to transport by air carrying (like what they were doing in the movie), and putting more bulk around the middle may have made heat dissipation much more difficult. A vehicle of that size is going to generate a ton of heat, especially if it has a nuclear reactor for its power supply.

    2. Honestly, if they’ve got the quality of robotics that could be used in really good giant robots, I suspect that they’ve put a similar level of robotics to work in maintaining the Jaegers. Moreover, the attacks weren’t coming too frequently at first, so maintenance scheduling probably wasn’t as much of an issue.

    3. The problem with a remote drone pilot is that if the communications link gets damaged on a remotely piloted machine, then your god-only-knows-how-expensive giant robot just became a useless hunk of metal to get the crap beaten out of it. And that’s going to be harder to shield and protect than the internal control systems being used by a pilot actually inside the machine.

    Besides, pilots don’t really seem to be an issue until the program is near death anyways. Pentecost didn’t bother to track down Becket until he was down to four Jaegers and the program was on its last legs.

    4. The kinetic kill orbital is a good idea, but if you’re going to just blow them up then you could get the same effect for a lot cheaper with a lot of conventional ordinance – and the same problem of spreading a ton of kaiju blood and viscera all over the place. You could mine the portal with conventional explosives to kill them when they come through. But the point of the Jaegers wasn’t just to kill them – it was to kill them in a way that minimizes contamination (and to provide cool robot vs alien fights).

    Of course, that doesn’t explain why they don’t just have a bunch of Jaegers standing by the portal to gang upon Kaiju as soon as they come through. Sure, they’re less effective in deep water, but they still took down two Category 4 Kaiju in those conditions. Maybe it would make maintenance much more of a pain in the ass.

    5. The Kaiju must be made of something nigh-magical, considering how durable and mobile they are despite immense size and mass. I don’t know enough about structural steel to tell whether it could stand up to the kind of mechanical stress that a Jaeger would put it through.

    6. Yeah, the Wall of Life was stupid. There’s not even really a good pretense for building it, because are they really just going to abandon the Pacific Ocean to a rapidly growing group of Kaiju? It was just a device to put the Jaeger program on its last legs, and to look bad when it failed.

  • gfish3000

    Brett, terrific points. Here are some counterpoints…

    1. Yes the Jaegers would be running very hot and just adding more mass would make them run even hotter, but the idea is to redesign them not to need legs at all, so all the heat created by managing its locomotion on two legs wouldn’t be generated. They’ll be harder to drop and heavier, but this also allows more room for weapons and for propulsion that would make them mobile on their own, without the need for drop choppers.

    2. Absolutely. Again, the cost would increase with the frequency and that’s with what I was concerned. Jaegers are a weapon meant to be used decisively and infrequently and their design is very indicative of that.

    3. Fair point. This is why I suggest having the pilots on base not halfway around the world to reduce lag and quickly get a backup line going. As far as keeping a communication link going, redundancy would be key. The reason why communication at sea is slow to non-existent today is because there aren’t enough satellites dedicated to maintaining high throughput. Having to fight Kaijus would change the priorities for boosting bandwidth and reliability. And yes, pilots are an issue, this is why Pentecost had to go out of his way to chase down Becket rather than just train another pilot.

    4. Using conventional explosives didn’t work very well because it took six days of unleashing them on a Category 1 Kaiju to kill it. Guided missiles are very expensive and you’ll pour tens of millions of dollars into every volley meant to kill a monster. For a few billion, efficiently firing off one KKV at a time, you could pay off your orbital killing machines in just three of four engagements.

    Though I have to note that cost hardly seems like an issue. When you have building sized monsters tearing through town, money is really no object as long as the end of the day it kills them and kills them quickly.

    5. Kaijus have keratin armor and with 2,500 tons of mass, they have plenty of soft tissues to absorb immense amount of punishment and keep ticking. By contrast, there’s no way that Jaegers would be primarily made of steel. It would shatter. Every time Gypsy Danger smashed its fist into its palm, I imagined the armor cracking under the forces involved as it should without a very exotic and flexible alloy involved.

  • TheBrett

    1. I’m not so sure the alternatives would be as useful. The legs allow the Jaegers to fight on land and sea, as well as in areas in both where it would be extremely difficult for wheeled, treaded, or floating Jaegers to go (like with the assault on the portal, where they were moving across some rough terrain).

    2. The movie actually does reinforce that, with the points about how the Jaeger Program is becoming much less cost-effective. It may have been more cost-effective when the Jaegers could easily make short work of a Kaiju popping out of the portal every six months.

    3. I was talking about the communication equipment on the Jaeger itself. That tends to be a major vulnerable point of real military craft, in part because you can’t just bury it under a ton of armor and shielding – it has to be exposed at least in part. If the Kaiju damage it and make it impossible to remotely control, then you’re screwed. At least with a piloted Jaeger, you can bury the control systems underneath the armor and continue fighting even if the radio gets smashed.

    As for Becket, Pentecost wanted an experienced pilot for his last ditch plan to shut down the portal. He had plenty of pilot candidates whom he tried to partner with Becket, although none of them had any real combat experience.

    4. That was an ad hoc attack quickly assembled from whatever military vehicles were in the area to deal with the Kaiju. An organized response with bombers plus land/sea-based artillery (as well as conventional mines near the portal) would be much more effective.

    Granted, cost isn’t going to be a big deal when you’re already building gigantic, futuristic robots, but other factors might be (such as maintenance on your orbital kill platforms).

    5. I was figuring their ability to actually stand up and move at all. Whatever makes up the Kaiju skeletal system is something far tougher than any biological material we know of. Gravity should be an absolute bear for them out of the water.

  • gfish3000

    1. That’s fair, and I admit there’s quite a bit of bias against legs on my end because as an engineer my first reaction is “how the eff am I supposed to keep a walking effin’ building upright?!” Maybe a four or six-legged Jaeger would be better for balance but between the vibration and the sheer computing power needed for the walk-by-wire controls, I’m having a lot of trouble seeing Jaegers that aren’t basically huge, mobile turrets being effective or efficient.

    3. Hard for me to argue there. The only thing I could think off to offset this would be a semi-automatic robot that can fight on its own, based on the techniques it learns from humans. But of course if a Kaiju pulls off a new trick, it will have no way to adapt to it and figure out a counterattack on the fly. That would be a job for a human.

    4. Well, the military does have plans to bring overbearing forces to an enemy target in the event of a sudden attack. You could consider a Kaiju to be the equivalent of a surprise raid by a competent and well equipped foreign military unit. Planned heavy shelling and bombing would probably be more effective as the units learn how to fight Kaiju but again, I think that you’re looking at a great deal with an orbital platform.

    It has to be precise but it doesn’t have to do much as a delicate scientific instrument and could function just fine for years if need be if it’s simple enough. And it’s precision depends on not getting a KKV stuck in its silo because we already have all the tools to make a precise drop. I understand your concerns about contamination and offer that the KKV would actually vaporize a good chunk of the monster.

  • TheBrett

    1. I wonder if something like that will turn up in a sequel, if this movie does well enough here and abroad to merit one. It seems like it would be a good way to branch out in terms of robot toys . . . err, Jaegers. I could imagine a four-legged Jaeger, although piloting it would pretty different.

    4. Good points. I was mostly just thinking about maintenance issues.

    I would hope it would vaporize them, instead of spreading their guts and ammonia blood all over the place. I was simply thinking that dumping a bunch of viscera and ammonia-based blood into a coastal area would be a major nuisance for clean-up, but wikipedia says it’s actually worse – ammonia is highly toxic to most aquatic life.

  • William R. Cousert

    They have tons of Kaiju tissue. Why couldn’t they find a substance that was toxic to to the species and poison them?

  • Tony

    I guess I would do thiss.. I would build from light strong materials (maybe fibercore) spiked (pointy) laser guided missiles or thermal seeking missiles with 2 stages and fire them at the kaiju’s from the air mostly on the sea and on land from platforms and when the target is locked and impact is almost imminent it will activate the second stage that gives the missile enough velocity to cut trough the skin and enter the body, when the body is penetrated it explodes. this would be a weapon just to cause internal organ damage (organs are softer than skin and no creature can survive without them) a few missiles per kaiju must do the trick……NO SWEAT, CHEAP, EFFICIENT.

    I didnt realy enjoy this movie (sorry i did my best to shut down half of my brain) because giant robots are not really efficient weapons. no country with a right mind would think “ow we are being attacked by giant monsters … lets build giant robots because only giants can fight giants” maybe if the ruler of a country likes boxing a lot or something they would get such an stupid idea.. smaller weapons are the future take the atomic bomb as an existing weapon… try to build a bomb that would have the same destructive force (not radiation counted) as a 50 kiloton warhead from TNT and try to drop it from a airplane. it would never work because your bomb would have to be roughly 1000 tons and your cargo hold must be 550m3 in volume ,,, why does a nuclear warhead work … just because it is smaller and lighter …. BIGGER DOES NOT EQUAL MORE DESTRUCTION..

    the future of warfare is smaller weapons with mass controled destruction like nanites or custom designed viruses that target specific threats, mabe not kaijus because they would have to need to be eliminated fast before they cause destruction.

    sorry for any bad english btw

    greetz tony