How a state or non-state actor assimilates a given technology matters more than whether they have it or not, especially since technological innovations do not necessarily stay with first adopters. Examples can be found in the evolution of tank doctrine and carrier operations. The British may have been initially ahead in tank design and doctrine, and but that didn’t save them from deploying them in a manner distinctly inferior to the Wehrmarcht. The fragility of RMAs was grasped by the early RMA writers, who often warned that the US could not expect to be the only actor to exploit precision-strike technology.
Another basic truth is that those who forecast continued impunity also forget that the defense is the stronger form of war. Tanks soon were countered by layered anti-tank defenses. Massed artillery barrages in World War I were frustrated by elastic defense. Aircraft once prophesized to be invincible were torn to pieces over the skies in Europe in the Combined Bomber Offensive. And what of the nuclear weapon, the so-called “ultimate weapon?” Well, its ultimate-ness meant that it could not be employed as an effective operational weapon, and using nuclear weapons to do anything more than deter was very chancy. For every ambiguous success of nuclear compellence (such as the end of Pacific War and the Korean War), there have also been many more failures to achieve escalation dominance. Iran is likely to discover that all they do is protect it from something the US has never seriously contemplated: full-bore regime change. And covert action, the political “ultimate weapon” of the Cold War era, has a checkered history so infamous that even reasoned scholars of intelligence history such as John Prados think the entire idea in and of itself is dubious. Maybe Prados is a bit too harsh, but his point is important.
Solly Zuckerman noted in 1962 that technological complexity actually make it more difficult to achieve strategic effect on the battlefield. More complex systems tend to increase personnel requirements and require a complex backbone of supporting technologies and systems to optimize. This will not change with the introduction of autonomous weapons. In fact, the need to ensure that these military technologies act in accordance with the commander’s intent will likely create new classes of technicians and operators—just as remotely piloted vehicles generated their own set of support requirements. Zuckerman also argues that more complex technologies also limit freedom of action, which is also true when one examines the political implications of actually utilizing drones in expeditionary environments.