Robots in Combat: A True Revolution or Just Techno-Hype?

By Sandra I. Erwin
The U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft and ground robots have been ballyhooed as symbols of a fundamental shift in warfare, a revolution in military technology, the possibility of casualty-free wars.
Not everyone buys the hype.
The military’s love affair with robots, instead, should be seen as symptom of deeper changes in the way the U.S. military fights wars, said Fred Kaplan, a Slate magazine columnist who specializes in foreign policy and national security.
At aSlate-sponsored conference last month in Washington, D.C., Kaplan poured cold water on the idea that robots can alter the nature of warfare.
The real transformation that has been under way is not the use of robots but rather the changing role of the U.S. Air Force from a service that was conceived to fight aerial warfare to one that works 100-percent in support of ground forces, Kaplan said. Unmanned aircraft are only facilitating that transition.
The notion that robots have forever revolutionized armed combat has been propagated by military officials, hardware manufacturers and scholars such asP. W. Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the bestseller "Wired for War."
Singer spoke at the conference about the staggering rise in the deployment of robots on the battlefield. The U.S. military had only a handful of robots when it invaded Iraq. Now it operates 7,000 unmanned aircraft and more than 12,000 ground robots. The Air Force this year will train more unmanned-aircraft operators than conventional pilots. “There’s something big going on here,” Singer said.
Kaplan regards such talk as hoopla. “I’m not denying change in warfare” but the use of robotic systems should be viewed in perspective, he said. The reason why unmanned systems are regarded as technological superstars in current wars is that they help ground forces.
“What is the Air Force doing with UAVs? Close-air support, something that the Air Force has been trying to get out of doing since it became an independent service more than 60 years ago,” Kaplan said. “There hasn’t been any real air-to-air combat in a half- century. There is no bombing of deep interdiction targets. There are no deep interdiction targets.”
From 1947 until 1982, every chief of staff of the Air Force was a strategic bomber pilot. From ‘82 until last year, every chief was a tactical fighter pilot. The current leader of the Air Force comes from the Air Mobility Command and the Air Force Special Operations Command. “This is both cause and consequence of a huge revolution that’s going on,” said Kaplan.
Ground troops, on the other hand, essentially are still doing what they have always done: confront the enemy face to face and figure out how to defeat him, although they are increasingly using robots to find and defuse bombs.
In today’s wars where adversaries hide in cities among civilians, where U.S. forces typically can’t tell friend from foe, robots do “very little good,” said Kaplan. “Potentially they can do much bad.”
There is a logical explanation for why, historically, more than half of war casualties happen during the first contact with the enemy, he said. It is because of how difficult it can be to size up the enemy and predict his intent. “As much as everyone would like it to be, robots are not a substitute for manpower,” said Kaplan. “You can’t let a robot get acclimated for you.” Robots, he added, will never be “substitutes for people getting killed or for killing other people.”
Predictions of greater demand for battlefield robots in the future ignore the principle that technologies gain acceptance only when the users find them useful, Kaplan said. Everyone who grew up watching The Jetsons believed that there would be wristwatch cameras and video phones everywhere. Technologically, that is easy to achieve, but the reason most people don’t have video phones is because they don’t want them. A similar logic applies to robots, said Kaplan. “Most of the Jetsons’ devices that don’t exist don’t exist because we don’t want them to exist.”
Kaplan’s reasoning may explain why the market for military ground robots may have stalled, as was reported inNational Defense last month.
“Currently, no one is clamoring for armed robots and there are no requirement documents forthcoming,” said Don Sando, director of capabilities development and integration at the Army’s maneuver warfare laboratory in Fort Benning, Ga.
A Marine Corps official equally noted that “there has not been a request for an armed robot coming in from the field.”
Robot manufacturers, meanwhile, remain confident that the market will not dry up.
One of the top suppliers of military robots, iRobot Corp., has been ramping up production and is hiring more workers in anticipation of higher demand, said retired Navy Vice Adm. Joseph W. Dyer, president of iRobot’s government and industrial robots division.
Also speaking at the Slate conference, Dyer said the company expanded its work force by 22 percent during the past 18 months. “We are looking for computer scientists, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, analysts, people who can work on tactics and doctrine,” Dyer said. “Robotics is becoming a real business.”
But he acknowledged that robots are not the technical panacea that Hollywood has concocted. “Don’t believe everything you see in the movies,” he said. Robots are still not smart enough to do intellectually demanding tasks. “They have still to overcome the challenge of vision within context,” said Dyer. It is unlikely that the U.S. military will deploy ground robots as substitutes for human shooters, he noted. “We feel strongly that we’ll always have to have a person in the loop,” he said. “Will there be any scenarios where you’ll empower a robot? Perhaps. But it’s a real stretch.”

Topics: Robotics, Armed Robots, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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