TCS Daily

A Soldier-Free Battlefield?

By Michael Lopez-Calderon - February 8, 2006 12:00 AM

The well-publicized CIA-manned Predator airstrike in Damadola, Pakistan that targeted top Al-Qaeda terrorist commanders once again puts the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in the spotlight. In addition to the Damadola hit, the Predator is credited with killing Osama Bin Laden's military commander Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan on November 16, 2001, and Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi and five others on November 3, 2002 in Yemen.

The Predator has established an excellent track record in the War on (Islamist) Terror both as a strike aircraft and surveillance platform. Another UAV that does not garner the same headlines is the Global Hawk; however, it has greater flying time, range, and can reach higher altitudes than the Predator. But the Global Hawk does not have any direct kills to its credit largely because it has never been used as an airstrike platform. Both of these aircrafts as well as smaller UAVs like the Dragon Eye have hogged the headlines while scant attention has been given to unmanned armored vehicles.

But that is about to change.

The January 2006 issue of Popular Science magazine has an eye-opening cover story "Robots Go To War" about the amazing progress of the U.S. Army's robotic armored vehicular technology. The Army is pushing its plans for a soldier-free battlefield with a sense of urgency.

One of the most difficult challenges to America's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq has been the terrorist insurgency's use of powerful and sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including shaped-charges that can penetrate the thickest armored vehicles.

Thus the Army has adopted a three-tier course: One is to develop better armor for both traditionally unarmored vehicles and lightly armored vehicles. These vehicles include supply trucks, maintenance and recovery vehicles, engineer vehicles, ambulances, and light, rapid mobile transport vehicles like the original thin-skinned HUMVEES that proved vulnerable to small arms fire and IED attacks. Another approach has the Army working on counter-explosive technology that detects, interdicts, and diffuses roadside bombs, IEDs, and landmines.

The problem with upgrading and adding more armor to armored vehicles -- as well as developing vehicles like the Buffalo that interdict roadside bombs -- is two-fold: No amount of armor can protect against the most powerful and sophisticated anti-armor landmines, IEDs and anti-tank rockets; and these vehicles are manned, which guarantees loss of life when powerful explosives penetrate the armor. A solution lies with the third option: the development of weaponized, fully-autonomous or unmanned fighting vehicles -- the only remedy in which loss of a vehicle does not result in loss of life.

Robotic, fully-autonomous fighting and reconnaissance, recovery, and re-supply vehicles are all in their infant stage, and show both promise and uncertainty. Problems involve traversing difficult terrain; operating under severe weather conditions that may impact laser detection and ranging (LADAR) capabilities; aligning complex-electronic and computer commands.

The Pentagon has plans to move beyond the tentative phase of an automobile-sized UGV prototype to a fully-autonomous, mega-ton fighting tank. Another planned mega-tonnage UGV is the cargo-carrier, a type of fully-autonomous vehicle that will both greatly reduce the Pentagon's current use of outsourced, privately-contracted cargo-hauling companies like KBR, and the number of auxiliary, non-combat troops often found in engineer and supply units.

The Unmanned Battle Tank (UBT) is expected by 2030 and will be a four-wheeled as opposed to track-vehicle. Weighing 12 tons it will be armed with anti-tank missiles, smoke-grenade launchers, a laser guided multi-barreled machinegun and the latest armor-piercing 120mm main gun. Its profile is low to the ground -- the turret is about a fifth the size of the current M-1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank (MBT) -- and its weight is only one-fifth of the M1 which should mean tremendous cost-savings on fuel.

The cargo haulers, one which already exists in the late experimental stages, should be ready by 2010. A small, jeep-like Combat Supply Robot will replace the HUMVEE by 2012.

The most exotic and truly sci-fi looking UGV is the Six-Legged Hunter expected by 2032. The key to this killing machine is its use of articulated limbs and locomotion that mimics insects. The Hunter will come with the usual assortment of multi-barrel, armor-piercing gun and anti-tank missiles. However, its appearance will remind Boomer Generation cartoon aficionados of Johnny Quest.

This radical transformation of the military's armor and support vehicles will yield a reduction in the number of casualties among both combat and support personnel, and the freeing up of more troops for specialized combat units such as Special Forces Green Berets, Delta Team, Marine Recon, and Navy SEALS. Indeed, the Pentagon plans for a massive expansion of the Special Forces; these warriors differ greatly from regular soldiers in that they are career-professionals, older, have higher levels of education, are ultra-patriotic and come from patriotic military families.

Since robotic transformation will greatly reduce troop numbers, and because those filling the ranks will consist of an older, wiser, and elite warrior population, the days of the naïve eighteen-year-old who entered the military either for adventure, economic security, or character development may go the way of colorful battlefield uniforms and horse-cavalry.

Michael Lopez-Calderon is a writer in the Washington, DC area.


One Electromagnetic Pulse gun or bomb, and we're back to Troops In Boots.

As an enhancement, a Robot Army would be great. But not as a primary force.

The enemy today adapts quickly. He mentioned "Thin Skinned Humers." We added some smaller uparmor kits, and now heavier armor kits. They just made bigger and bigger IED's. Now... Sending a 'Bot out with ground penetrating radar and scanning for buried voids in the road that could be an IED, and the bot destroying or disabling it... That I could see.

-- SSgt, USMC-R, 2862

EMP protection is not very complicated, it just has to be designed in from the start.

Expensive toys
In a war between minimal numbers of American soldiers with high tech weapons and large numbers of dissidents with minimal weaponry, the insurgents will win in the long run.

Why? America is overstretched, with such inordinate defense expenditures that we are faced with the prospect of being unable to afford medical care and retirement programs, such as pension funds and social security. We are shovelling all our wealth down the maw of the war machine. This places America at the mercy of its creditors. We will run out of credit far sooner than they run out of angry bodies, no matter the lethality of our toys.

A good fix would be to withdraw from the field of battle and try to spend smaller amounts, in the service of the common good. Perhaps if humanity were better served by this wealth we are squandering so many of them would not be so anxious to destroy us.

What is the motivation...?
An excellent point. Of course there will probably only ever be one side with this capability. No other nation would want to enter into an arms race with one that had already won so decisively.

And for this sole superpower there would be no motivation to ever end the war. In fact there are two excellent motivations to continue it in perpetuity. One is political control of the people who have been made fearful and dependent on a strongly militaristic government. And the other, of course, is to sell war materiel. So on the "war" side one has both Power and Money.

We are spending less now on defense than we did during the cold war, as a percentage of GDP.

Those boys with their expensive toys are winning, and winning handily at present.

There goes your second premise.

Thirdly, it is never a good idea to stand around waiting for the other guy to hit you.

Geek Check! Trekkie alert!

(kidding... I go to the SD Comic-Con every year)

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