In my world, the walls between realms are breaking apart. There are portals (using that word to simplify things) that allow travel between dimensions and across space.

One alien race has technology analogous to what Earth had right at the start of WW2. They have bolt action rifles, machine guns, tanks, etc, but not modern computing power like we have.

In my story, Humans invade one of the portals and set up a base. Before they can solidly their foothold, the aliens attack and kill the troops at the base.

So now they have some modern weapons, tanks, a couple helicopters, and communications equipment.

Would they be able to quickly (before a counter-attack) figure out the starting procedures for the tanks and helicopters to move them to their own base?

In response to comments:

How long in advance have they been spying on the humans?

About a day or two.

Was there an all-out fight or did they sneak up and take out the humans at night?

It was an all out attack, with overwhelming numbers.

how fast is the counter-attack coming?

I was originally thinking a day or two. That could be odd, as pointed out in the comments, because the military generally wouldn't put those resources out there without backup.

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    $\begingroup$ My guess is the difference in technology levels wouldn't be as big of a problem as the fact that it would be literally completely alien to them. You could take a person from a hundred years ago and teach them today's technology but even a more advanced alien would struggle I imagine. $\endgroup$ – Virusbomb Jan 22 '18 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ There's a mighty large gap between being able to start a helicopter and being able to fly it. There's an even larger gap if you want to land it without breaking it. I got the privilege of flying one once. That is not an easy thing to figure out. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 22 '18 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ If aliens have adequate machinery near the humans' base, they can truck away or tow everything. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 22 '18 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Cort Ammon hopping from a WW2 helicopter into a modern one? $\endgroup$ – Bookeater Jan 22 '18 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ Also how fast is the counter-attack coming? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 22 '18 at 21:33

11 Answers 11


As many people have pointed out, the capability gap is so huge that the invaders will have a great deal of difficulty being able to use any of the equipment, even if they can recognize what it is based on extrapolations of their current technology.

The biggest fly in the ointment is that modern equipment outside of extremely basic things like rifles and grenades are equipped with electronic systems. Unlike the movies, you generally don't need to enter secret codes for everything, but even powering up a man portable radio usually requires doing a few steps in a certain order, for example, turn on the power switch. Look at the display as the system does a self test. Enter the frequencies, squelch settings, frequency hopping map and cryptography that you intend to use, and plug in the militarized GPS. Now do that for the other radios (some of which will be different models or built by different manufacturers).

enter image description here

Canadian LAV 3 Turret. Can you figure out how to use the radios in the background?

Tanks will have electronic systems to inform the driver of the state of the vehicle, and the turret crew have a whole turret full of complex electronics related to target acquisition, fire control, and even safety. In some tanks, the loader puts a round into the breach, but even when the breach is closed the gun will not fire until the loader pushes a switch (usually mounted on the wall of the turret away from the gun, reaching this automatically ensures he is away from the recoiling cannon when it fires).

Your aliens may discover some things the hard way. Most military safety systems have large, easily accessible switches or triggers, so an alien investigating the interior of a vehicle may trigger a fire extinguisher. This sounds funny until you realize the system works by very rapidly displacing all the oxygen from the vehicle interior to smother the fire instantly. Being inside when the "happy handle" is pulled is not considered a good thing.

enter image description here

Interior of a French VBCI. The bottle shaped object on the end of the left hand row of seats looks very much like the fire suppression reservoir. It will feed nozzles strategically placed throughout the vehicle if a fire is detected or the system is activated

When the Human relief forces arrive, they may discover most of the machinery has been "bricked" by aliens trying to activate things in the wrong order, or by removing batteries and connectors and being unable to replace them properly. There is really no need to plant bombs and other booby traps (indeed, it will simply make the soldiers job that much harder and more dangerous).

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    $\begingroup$ I love the idea of the relief forces finding bricked equipment. Thank you! $\endgroup$ – user41674 Jan 23 '18 at 2:11
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    $\begingroup$ This. Thisnis the best answer. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 23 '18 at 6:28
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    $\begingroup$ Can you figure out how to use the radios in the background? I'm from this era and technologically wise, and I would have a hard time figuring out those are actually radios. $\endgroup$ – Inferry Jan 23 '18 at 6:49
  • $\begingroup$ "Look at the display as the system dies a self test." Freudian slip? :D $\endgroup$ – Dave Sherohman Jan 23 '18 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ I'm from a country in which there is mandatory military service, and I did mine in the radio troops. It's been some years though, and I almost certainly would have trouble using the radios I was trained to use. $\endgroup$ – Nico Jan 23 '18 at 8:12

The value of the stolen technology far exceeds its immediate usefulness.

If we were at war with a more advanced alien species and we acquired some of their technology the absolute last thing we would want to do is put that equipment on the frontline where it can (and most likely will be) recaptured or destroyed. Instead we would want to study the technology in hopes of learning how it works, how its made, what vulnerabilities it might have and what its capabilities are. Knowing where the ammunition is stored in a tank or how long a helicopter can stay airborne before refuelling is invaluable information, whereas these assets deployed with relatively untrained crews would have little to no impact on the outcome of a battle.

A state of the art attack helicopter flown by a WW2 pilot would fly too high (the pilot being primarily concerned with evading subsonic fighters and AA guns) and get shot down by a guided missile while the pilot wonders what that annoying tone is for. It would be like giving modern day soldiers medieval swords and shields, sure they could fight with them but any professional soldier from that period is going to wipe the floor with such relatively inexperienced opponents.

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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, best strategy for WW2-level aliens is to capture human technology, block the portal, keep quiet, copy and mass-produce the artefacts and fight other WW2 aliens for alien world domination. $\endgroup$ – Dima Tisnek Jan 23 '18 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ That is exactly what an intelligent civilization would do - Take it and hide it in a hidden bunker somewhere and unlock it's secrets, reverse engineering it for human sized occupants. Or perhaps what we have already done... $\endgroup$ – Coomie Jan 24 '18 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ *cough*Area 51*cough* $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Jan 24 '18 at 16:40

In my story, Humans invade one of the portals and set up a base. Before they can solidly their foothold, the aliens attack and 'kill all humans'.

It is very unlikely that such an invasion could have been okayed without at least a very basic recognition and survey.

So I think it's a given that, before the invasion, the Earth forces know what they're going to fight against. They know they have a technological advantage. They have read and upvoted Cognisant's excellent argument.

Therefore, they'd do whatever is in their power to be very, very sure they're not going to lose that advantage. The other side has a whole world, and they're on a war footing.

It becomes crucial to prevent the enemy from using, study, or, worse still, reverse engineer Terran weapons.

In ancient times, when (say) a cannon had to be abandoned in the field, it was either burst or spiked to prevent it from being captured and used. Something of the kind would undoubtedly be done here (or would it?), but much more thoroughly; we don't just want to prevent the enemy from using the equipment (the equipment's complexity would be proof enough for that), we ideally want to leave them nothing they can study.

So provisions to destroy matériel before capture would certainly be in place.

But this only covers foreseeable losses. Equipment might be lost before there is a practical possibility to scuttle it. And it is conceivable that it could be moved elsewhere, to an aliens' Area 51, where it would be examined with great care.

Therefore, I'm sure that some kind of automatic self-destruct would be deemed essential.

So after wiping out all the humans (and assuming what follows hasn't already happened on the Terran commander's orders), the aliens enter what remains of the base, perhaps try breaking into a helicopter...

"By the Elder Gods, Sarge! Have you ever seen anything like this?"

"Less gawking and more technology stealing, soldier! Have you figured how to start this Gods-cursed contraption? Careful with those missiles, boys!"

"It's okay, Sarge, we're good-"


"What the-?"

"This thing talks!"


"What did it say?"

"How the Hells should I know? Do I look like I speak Terran?"


"Hells, isn't red the Terran color for danger? This thing is flashing red!"

"Everyone back! EVERYONE BACK!!!"




I think it quite likely that Case Omega would involve a low-yield, "suitcase" nuclear device triggered by a dead man's switch.

In addition, there would surely be several HE souvenirs hidden in all mobile units. A network of sensors to tell whether there's someone in the cabin; if there is, at least one of the several keypads needs to enter a four-digits code within one minute from the beginning of the beeps.

You could easily mass-produce such booby-traps, and they would be very safe through massive redundancy: in a helicopter you might have, say, six armored sensor-keypad-transmitters, and as many bombs, all self-networking. A bomb would not arm unless networked with at least three sensors and two bombs, and a single OKAY stops it until all networked sensors send a NO LIFE ABOARD - REARM signal. Damaging the vehicle so much that the transmitters die means there's no vehicle left; finding and securing all the bombs in less than one minute is a losing proposition. Jamming a military short-range frequency-hopping encrypted WiFi inside a metal shell would require such a massive, easily-recognizable-as-such jamming that just trying it would trigger the explosion.

Possibilities left:

  • incredible luck

  • unforeseen alien magic

  • treason

  • kidnapping plus brainwashing

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    $\begingroup$ This answer is interesting, are there really "bombs" in a Heli? or any other Military vehicle? +1 $\endgroup$ – Mr.J Jan 23 '18 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, some manual (often on manned aircraft and boats) and some automated (mosly bomber drones) afaik. It’s real and it’s out there (but much less spectacular than the story above) $\endgroup$ – John Keates Jan 23 '18 at 1:39

The main problem these aliens may have with adapting technology is not recognizing or being able to use it, but being able to replicate it in a meaningful quantity and quality. The largest issue in this scenario is materials science.

Its all very well being able to see that something is made of composite plastics, or the ratios of metals in alloys, but the key is knowing the right conditions to make the stuff and being able to replicate those conditions.

After all modern steel is functionally the same iron from a couple 1000 years ago, we just have far better control of the carbon ratios and tempering.

On the electronics front they will likely benefit a lot from being able to see the route to take, but still without stealing a chip fab from Earth will likely have to go through the slow march of Moore's Law even if they know exactly where they are trying to get to.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly. In WWII, Germans knew the usefulness of rockets, managed to build some, but the key point is “being able to replicate it in a meaningful quantity and quality”. $\endgroup$ – Holger Jan 23 '18 at 10:47

They don't need to

With WW2 tech, they've got mobile cranes, they've got flatbed trailers, and anything else they need to move a large stationary lump of metal. Everything gets moved fast to the aliens' equivalent of Area 51, and every alien scientist or engineer with relevant knowledge gets drafted.

As has already been pointed out, there's no way any of the grunts on the ground could figure out how to drive stuff. More than that, this should be SOP imposed from the top down. An instant overwhelming attack like that doesn't come out of thin air - the aliens must already have been on guard against advanced people crossing the portals, and to stage an attack with WW2 equipment which takes down modern attack helicopters and tanks implies they've put some thought into it. After that, all captured equipment becomes vital military intelligence, in the same way as a captured Enigma machine was in WW2.


Make the technology more advanced

Designer of weapons systems1 want to make their systems as accessible as possible. Not because they want untrained people to use them, but because the simpler they are, the less likely is that mistakes happen.

Someone driving a vehicle has to control both the vehicle itself and how to react to the environment. The more attention needed to control a vehicle, the less control of the tactical situation and the more risk of accidents. And, the more basic the commands, the easier and more natural they should be.

So, continuing this trend, you could very well have tanks and helicopters that allow for automatic travel, well enough for people strange to them to drive them.

Of course, that does not make the situation less difficult for the aliens.

They still lack all the training about the capabilities of the hardware they just got. They will not be able to use their machines at 100% capability, with luck they will get a 50%. Maybe they can fire a gun in the right direction and hit a target, but probably they won't know which type of shell is best for their target, how to tell the tank to change the type of shell or even which are the types of shell availabes.

They will be facing an enemy that knows what the machines can do, and have experience so they do not have to read screens. Their enemy will also know how the other members of the unit would react. All of that will make a lot of impact in battle.

And of course, beyond the most basic task (refueling), maintenance will be an absolute no-no.

1In reality, designers of any kind of system.

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    $\begingroup$ Even that device with “easy to use” controls is unlikely to be controllable by anyone with a non-human cultural backgound, as we use unfamiliar to them color schemes and symbols. They are derived from things we might not use anymore (symbols depicting a crt tv, celluloid movie tape, or a floppy disc) or in an entirely different context (scissors, stop watch, or even better, traffic signs, for example, entirely obscure for people on a different planet never having seen our roads). $\endgroup$ – Holger Jan 23 '18 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ Having seen some of those "easy to use" controls, I'd also point out that military equipment is designed for robustness in the field. LCD touchscreens and graphics are much less useful than 1970s-era LEDs and pushbuttons if you want something which can be kicked off a plane on a pallet, bounce off a rock on landing, finish in a swamp in the rain, and be fished out still in working order. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jan 23 '18 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham that is a very nice point, thank you. In my defense, I am refering to "future" systems where those durability issues are taken for granted. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Jan 23 '18 at 19:34

Probably not, if you want to be realistic.

But then again, it's up to you to handwave this option in or out for your aliens.

The problem with helicopters is the complex checklist that you have to go through to start them and not cause a crash moments to minutes later as a result of having missed something. Even within the same technological level the full set of procedures and the handling of different helicopters varies by model and manufacturer, and you need to learn each separately in order to not kill yourself while piloting. If the helicopter is armed and the weapons are controlled by the pilot/copilot, even learning how to operate those will be complicated. You may think that the trigger is going to fire the front cannons, but instead you send a missile up the [expletive] of your ground forces, and find out that you were inside the blast radius.

As for the tanks. I know next to nothing about tanks in general, but think of this: nowadays you can call your car insurance company and block the car's fuel pump if it gets stolen, or you can ask them to remotely open the doors for you if you have lost your keys and your baby is dehidrating inside. If civillians can do this, imagine what any self-respecting armed forces can do to a compromised tank.

As for comms equipment, your aliens will get stuck in the "Please enter your username and password" part.

Last but not least. If you manage to kill everybody in a military base these days, you need not have the slightest fear of suffering a counter attack that includes tanks. Or marines or other spec ops soldiers. Or helicopters.

The comeback will come in the form of fighters/bombers that your radars won't see coming, flying in altitudes that you won't be able to reach with whatever you may have. Stay alert for bunker-busting missiles and very heavy ordinance.

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    $\begingroup$ "When the going gets tough, the tough call for close air support." $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 22 '18 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ As for the tanks [...] think of this: nowadays you can call your car insurance company and block the car's fuel pump if it gets stolen. If you put this kind of gadgets in tanks, you have made yourself very vulnerable to an enemy "switching off" your army, in case that there is any vulnerability/security breach. One of the risks of nuclear missiles is that there is no way to counter-order them, and that is made by design. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Jan 22 '18 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 if that was an issue, bomber drones would not be a thing. They are as likely to be hijacked and then used against you as tanks, but with more spectacular consequences. The phantom menace is real, but so is investment in electronic security. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 22 '18 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan my idea is literally xcom in reverse. That was the plan from the beginning haha. $\endgroup$ – user41674 Jan 22 '18 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 modern combat vehicles have something much better than a remote turn-off switch, transponders that tell the home base where each of them currently is. Having them captured and really used by an enemy who doesn’t even know that this possibility exists, would be much more valuable than turning them off remotely (telling the enemy that remote controls exist)… $\endgroup$ – Holger Jan 23 '18 at 10:43

I don't think a person from the years of WWII would be completely lost in our modern day. Sure the technology has moved on but not so much that its unrecognizable. I'm assuming since your aliens have WWII tech that they're at least as smart as humans were then. People then had phones and we have portable cell phones. They had planes, and we have faster, bigger ones. They had bolt action rifles and we have machine guns (they had machine guns too, but you know what I mean).

The only things we didn't have then are computers and the internet, but even a cursory briefing could give them an understanding of that. Plus, so much tech now is user-friendly.

Its not the technology level, its the level of intelligence and capacity to understand. If your aliens are relatively smart they should be able to adapt. Its not like they're cave men.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree that they should be able to figure firearms in minutes, but for anything other than that: even if they can figure those out, it takes time. Pilots need special training for each different model of airplane they will pilot just so they won't kill themselves. And to make use of comms, the aliens will need to hack military grade stuff, while not having even a script kiddie among them. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 22 '18 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan, I didn't think there was a time limit for how soon they had to understand it. My understanding of the question was whether or not they could understand modern tech, not could they understand it within a certain time constraint. I still think it possible. Also might there not be one or two unusually smart aliens who could figure out encryptions and passwords and such? We have clever geniuses. So would they (That is unless the question has been amended since my answer). $\endgroup$ – Len Jan 23 '18 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ This I can speak about with authority, for I have a major in Computer Science. That kind of codebreaking requires suspension of disbelief. IRL, the FBI has the kind of genius you mention on staff. And their genius people have extensive experience working with state-of-the-art tech. Not long ago they had months to break into a handful of iPhones, but didn't manage. Food for thought ;) $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 23 '18 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ There are some people who were around in WWII and who are still around today, capable of understanding modern tools. $\endgroup$ – WBT Jan 24 '18 at 16:29

Not likely that they'd last long enough to assimilate the new technology.

If we look at the last time there was a large disparity between weapons tech in a conventional war, it would probably be the 1990 Gulf war, when somewhat better than WW2 tech ran up against the latest and greatest. (and, yes, there are parallels to the current situation with N Korea, whose current army is even more antiquated today than Iraq of 1990, while western military tech has advanced considerably since then)

In short, it was no contest at all.

Not only would WW2 tech do poorly against modern tech, it is unlikely that a civilization based on WW2 tech could adapt to modern tech quickly enough to make any sort of difference. After all, the army you'd be trying to steal the tech from knows it a lot better than you do. It's not like you can capture a Sidewinder missile and start building reproductions over night, when you can't even build the simplest microchip.

A civilization whose military was based on WW2 tech would be well advised to consider an economic relationship rather than an adversarial one. Look up the current price of a Mustang, FW190, or a running Tiger tank today. If they're based on WW2 tech, they're already equipped to build those things.

Looking outside of the military market, they'd be ideally positioned to start turning out priceless 1930's classic cars like the Deusenberg SJ, Alfa Romeo 6C, Mercedes 540k...

Such a civilization could go into the functional reproduction business, and clean up.

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    $\begingroup$ The tech to produce those 1930s cars exists on Earth today, but you don't see anybody using it to take those large profits you seem to believe are available for the taking. $\endgroup$ – WBT Jan 24 '18 at 16:28

Can they move them to their home base?

Well that depends how long they have before the next wave comes through the portal, and how many trucks they brought with them, They're not going to be able to fly a helicopter

Drive a tank: maybe, fight with one: no.

If you want a way to delay the counterattack, perhaps some bio-weapon or similar ploy would work. These aliens never signed the Geneva convention.


They can steal - grab the loot, fill the trains and RUN, because the terrans will come back with things like a B2 and a few tactical nukes to vaporize the loot (I assume the gate is big enough for a bomber to pass). Maybe if they use multiple trains as decoys they can escape with something.

Use it? Hardly. Most equipment nowadays is full of electronics and computers that are at least 50 years ahead. Even if they can build something like the Eniacs they won't understand 14nm chips, they can't even see, resolve, things on this scale as they lack electronic microscopes. And electronics is only the first problem - will they be able to understand the operating systems?

The equipment will show them what can be done in electronics, machining and weapows systems engeneering but they will have to get there on their own feet, no shortcuts. Just like if the american army left behind a lot of equipment in, say, Chad. The chadians wouldn't be able to replicate the equipment nor use it. And even if they could use it, would they be able to manufacture spare parts, ammunition and do maintanace? They wouldn't because the country lacks the industrial facilities and accumulated knowledge to do so. The same applies to your aliens, in a much bigger scale, because at least the chadians would be able to hire mercenaries that know how to operate the gear or simply sell them for better suited equipment, like RPKs and Toyotas.


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