Robot Warriors
By Robert Bruce

“The robots will take on forms that will optimize their use for the roles and missions they will perform. Some will look like vehicles, some like airplanes, some like insects or animals or other objects in an attempt to camouflage or to deceive the adversary. Some will have no physical form - software intelligent agents or cyberbots.” Doctor Russ Richards, Director of Project Alpha, US Joint Forces Command

Editor’s Note: This wraps up Robert Bruce’s three part series on military robots with a quick look at some current systems and then some crystal ball gazing. For those who are wondering why a “gun magazine” is devoting so much space to electromechanical gizmos and gadgets, we offer the observation that men with guns on the battlefield have always dreamed of ways to be more lethal and survivable. For American and allied forces directly engaged in the Global War on Terror, this dream is an immediate practical concern as a matter of life or death. Most all of the technologies in use and in the pipeline to make robots work better also make the common soldier’s weapons better. From all-weather sights to seeker projectiles, from stabilized mounts to directed energy beams, robotic research profoundly influences manportable weaponry. So, consider these articles a preview of what you’ll probably be reading about in SAR a dozen years from now. - Robert G. Segel

They have no fear, they feel no pain. They need no sleep and they don’t complain. They’re dead shots with a variety of weapons in any kind of weather day or night. And - if killed in action - nobody has to write a letter to their families or pay out life insurance benefits. They’re “weaponized robots” and more of them are on the way to the battlefield.

Nothing New

Unmanned war machines have been around for more than a hundred years. It is said that bomb equipped balloons were launched by both sides in the American Civil War with the object of causing destruction behind enemy lines. Land and sea mines are primitive autonomous weapons, waiting with infinite patience until bumped into.

The “Kettering Bug,” a bomb-carrying biplane with pre-set robotic controls, was flight tested by Americans late in WWI. German scientists picked up the idea and two decades later were sending robot ramjets against London in the form of V-1 “Buzz Bombs.”

In the 1950’s the US Air Force began arming jet fighters with Sparrow AIM-7 rockets, the first “fire and forget” weapons for air-to-air combat. In the Vietnam War “Firebee” AQM-34L recon drones saved countless numbers of American airmen by flying photo and electronic recon missions over Hanoi and Haiphong. It proved particularly useful at pinpointing both conventional anti-aircraft weapons and the increasingly deadly surface-to-air missiles supplied by the Soviet Union.

The Tomahawk Cruise Missile, initially fielded in 1983, is still flying extraordinary distances over hostile terrain to deliver high explosive payloads with pinpoint accuracy.

Building on the work of Israeli forces in the use of very small recon aircraft, America adopted the Pioneer UAV in time for the 1990-91 Gulf War. There, the 416 pound drone earned the distinction of being the first robot to accept the surrender of enemy combatants.

“The USS Wisconsin deliberately flew its Pioneer low over Faylaka Island. When the Iraqi defenders heard the sound of the UAV’s two-cycle engine, they knew they were targeted for more naval shelling. The Iraqis signaled surrender by waving handkerchiefs, undershirts and bed sheets.” American Forces Press Service

Why Robots?

The United States Armed Forces enjoy significant technological superiority over current and near future adversaries. This, serving highly trained and motivated warfighters, enables Americans to dominate almost any battlespace day or night and in any weather. But too many of the tasks that must be performed involve putting humans at unnecessary risk. Of course, combat has always involved degrees of risk and resulting casualties, but there is no excuse for sending men into a meat grinder when machines will do as well or better.

Robots in their many current and emerging forms offer a lot to human counterparts in the combat zone. Just about any tactical task - from hauling supplies, to reconnaissance, to the application of lethal force - is now or will soon be done in part or in whole by machines.

A tremendous variety of robots are working right now for American land, sea and air forces. Some of these include crawlers like MATILDA and TALON (recently equipped with weapons), rollers like DRAGON RUNNER, flyers like PREDATOR, and swimmers like RMS. But, as they say, “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet....”

The Science of War

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is central to the application of existing and emerging scientific knowledge to every aspect of human conflict. Its mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national security. This is done by sponsoring “high payoff research” that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use.

A quick glance at some recent programs launched by DARPA, just in the area of Urban Warfighting, shows how cutting-edge science is being applied to some very practical military uses. Contractors have been given six to twelve months to present “feasibility demonstrations” for 36 highly intriguing concepts, including these with distinctly robotic overtones:

“Potential applications for such robots... include surveillance, reconnaissance, pathfinding, deception, weapon delivery, transporting artifacts, and small scale actuation. Applications may include minefield detection wherein small sensors are mounted on hopping robots or robots with multi-task capabilities, intelligence gathering in city pipelines, robots in large numbers for decoy applications, or extremely small robots that might be injected and pick a door lock.” DARPA Distributed Robotics Overview

DARPA’s Distributed Robotics Program is looking for revolutionary approaches to extremely small robots, reconfigurable robots, systems of robots, biologically-inspired designs, innovative methods of robot controlling including innovative interfaces, and methods of implementing pooled capabilities and/or layered intelligence. We can get a better idea about what all that means by looking at some specific projects funded by DARPA and actually being worked on right now by various groups in industry, academia and high-speed science labs.

Future Combat Systems

The US Army is going through the agonizing process of “Transformation” from heavy forces structured for large scale conflict against conventional adversaries to those that are light, fast, flexible, and far more lethal. All types of robots are a big part of that transformation.

“Future Combat Systems (FCS) is catalyzing the Army’s transformation to the Objective Force. It will be a networked system-of-systems that includes manned and unmanned ground vehicles, along with various unmanned air vehicles. The goal is to develop Units of Action that have the lethality and survivability of an M1-based (Abrams tank) heavy force, but with the agility of today’s light forces.” DARPA Strategic Plan

In addition to a family of manned vehicles, FCS, as currently envisioned, will include four distinct types of ground robot platforms.

FCS also includes four classes of unmanned air vehicles ranging from small model plane style recon flyers used at the platoon and company level, through larger fixed wing and rotary wing recon, to the potential for flying an Apache-type robot helicopter with air-to-ground and air-to-air attack capabilities

Lethality Components

With directed energy weaponry including lasers and focused microwaves developing at a high speed, it is now fashionable in future combat circles to talk about “lethality components” as opposed to the old term “guns” used by men and machines. Some other interesting new concepts include:

Death From Above

“DARPA is conducting three unmanned air combatant programs: the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) with the Air Force, UCAV-N with the Navy, and the Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft with the Army. These aircraft will be teamed with manned systems on the ground and in the air....” DARPA Strategic Plan

The Navy and Air Force UCAVs are basically unmanned fighter jets with most of the same characteristics and capabilities as the ones that human pilots are flying in now. The program is progressing quickly and early versions are taking off without human aid, navigating on their own, doing high-value recon, and releasing “smart” ordnance in flight.

As for the Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft, this will be “an all-weather, highly autonomous and survivable unmanned rotorcraft fully integrated into the Army’s Objective Force combat maneuver force structure. Capable of autonomous mission planning while in flight, the UCAR will request guidance from a human operator only for tasking and final weapons authorization.” Boeing News Release


DARPA recognizes that, as hard as it is oftentimes for people to work together, a lot of sober thought and hard work needs to go into optimizing man-machine teams of the near future. Studies are underway to analyze how humans act, think and communicate and how robots might be equipped to handle our very different levels of physical and mental competence.

Increasingly smart robots will be working with humans whose baseline intelligence has not measurably improved in the last thousand years. Undaunted, DARPA is pressing forward with some spooky initiatives that just may have a payoff in helping scared, exhausted and information-overloaded soldiers work smarter and hit harder on future battlefields.

Command and control aren’t the only areas of human-robot interaction that DARPA is interested in. Improving the soldier’s comfort, stamina, load-lifting, distance-marching, lethality, communications, and survivability are urgent goals so that men can keep pace with their machines.

So, if all goes as planned over the next ten to twenty years the battlefields will swarm with armed robots of all types working for and with super soldiers. With luck this unstoppable team will be on the side of the good guys.

The internet has everything you need to know about Robotic Warriors of all types. Some good places to start are:

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V9N3 (December 2005)
and was posted online on March 29, 2013


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