‘If You’re Not Fielding, You’re Failing’

By Stew Magnuson
Retired Army Gen. Rick Lynch came to the National Defense Industrial Association’s Ground Robotics Capabilities conference in Springfield, Virginia, on his own dime because he still cares about this life-saving technology.

As a former combatant commander who led troops in the bloodiest years of the Iraq War — who also has a master’s degree in robotics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — he emerged before retirement as a forceful proponent of fielding ground robots. If the Army had fielded autonomous convoys, robotic combat vehicle wingmen, remote weapon stations and other such technologies, many of the soldiers in his command who lost their lives would have come home, he has said.

Melissa L. Flagg, deputy assistant secretary of defense at the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics’ research directorate, came to the conference to pinch-hit for her boss, Stephen Welby, one of the Defense Department’s point men for the so-called “third offset strategy.” The concept calls for a new wave of disruptive technology that will leapfrog the battlefield capabilities of peer competitors. Robotics and autonomy are two of the strategy’s key technologies.

Flagg displayed a PowerPoint slide that showed these capabilities being fielded in the mid-2020s. Lynch had seen several similar slides at the conference and indeed, over the past 15 years, where ground robots on the battlefield are always seemingly a decade away on someone’s technology roadmap.

This resulted in a testy exchange between the two, that not only speaks to the fundamental debate on ground robots, but applies to many of the so-called “weapons of the future,” which are always not quite ready to be fielded — for one reason or another.

The discussion was as follows:

Lynch: “I hate slides like this so let me tell you why. As we speak, there are service members in harm’s way across the world that don’t need to be in harm’s way. I commanded a division in combat where 153 of my soldiers died, 800 more came back in pieces and many of them were in places they didn’t need to be because technology could have taken them out of harm’s way.

“So my argument is always: we can do stuff sooner rather than later. The Germans had a robot on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. It has been out there before …”

Flagg: “That is why we have ‘the present’ on the chart. We’re doing this stuff right now. I mean we’ve got helicopters we can send in to evacuate people autonomously right now. Some of that is an acceptance problem.”

Lynch: “We’re here to talk about ground robotics.”

Flagg “Yup.”

Lynch: “You see, I commanded the third division in combat, I commanded the 3rd Corps. And I praise the work we have done with unmanned aerial systems. All that stuff is great, but we don’t have squat in ground robotics. We don’t have squat. So things we’re doing now are interesting to me but all that stuff on the right, we can move to the left if we simply say ‘Hey, that’s good enough.’ So let me make my point and ask my question.

“In combat, Secretary [Robert] Gates came to visit us many times, and he finally realized we needed a new system to protect our soldiers. That’s how we got the [mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle]. He facilitated the rapid acquisition of the MRAP and many of my soldiers were saved because they were in an MRAP, not in a tank, when they hit an [improvised explosive device].

“What we need is the DoD champion who says, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get something out there now.’ If we’re not fielding, we’re failing. We get something out there now and let them prove it over time. So the question is who is that DoD champion?”

Flagg: Deputy Secretary of Defense “Bob Work is that DoD champion. He’s out there every day saying it, and he has put money behind it. And we have four or five new demonstrations that we are putting together right now to try to fine tune some of this stuff from science to actual capability. But let’s be clear. A lot of this stuff is still science. Just because you have a robot doesn’t mean you have the smarts inside of it to do all these things on the right. So we can try. And we can put money behind it. And we can put all the smart people we have behind it, but I don’t have magic fairy dust.”

Lynch: “So we have to make sure we’re clear. So I commanded the Army’s digital brigade before digitization was cool. And what we did is we just put some untested systems in the hands of our soldiers and they told us what we needed to do to improve the capability. So we put it out there, and that’s what we have to do in the world of …”

Flagg: “I said operators should be involved every step of the way on this. Every step of the way. I clearly agree with you — in violent agreement. But I can’t field things that don’t exist. The stuff that does, we can get out there. We are committed to increasing our prototyping and demonstration capabilities, to engaging operators, to making sure that they are actually going to use it when we send it out there. But I don’t have innovation fairy dust. If you do, sell it to me. I would buy it for any price.”

Lynch: “You know after I left the Army I ran a research institute for the [University of Texas] system. A lot of this stuff on the right exists. It may not be perfect. … But it exists. My argument has always been get it out there when it’s good enough and let the service members use it and tell us what improvements need to be made.”

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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