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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) For many years now, robots have been able to follow a specific, predetermined course to an objective, shifting directions as needed and even avoiding obstacles should they emerge, however the U.S. Army is now taking massive new steps when it comes to autonomous navigation in ways that are expected to change the paradigm for modern warfare

“Right now we know we can execute waypoint navigation, we can have tele-operation, and we can do obstacle avoidance…..and we're really making huge strides on additional autonomous behaviors in the grip they do. We're making autonomous advances, both for on road and off road operations,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest.

Coffman said he could not elaborate on many of the specifics related to advanced degrees of autonomy, but he did point out a few distinct and significant advantages newer applications of robotic autonomy will bring to the force. For example, perhaps an autonomous vehicle could benefit from force-wide, cross domain networking and learn of upcoming barriers, obstacles or even enemy force locations? Perhaps AI-enabled forward robots can gather large volumes of sensor data, process and organize the critical information during operations and make adjustments and determinations as needed according to certain variables.

“What we learned is based on their mobility, their excellent mobility and their autonomous behaviors, we can actually have them move on a separate axis of advance and link up with the humans on the objective. So they can autonomously move without humans, link up with the humans, transfer back control, and then execute the mission. This gives the enemy multiple dilemmas,” Coffman said.

U.S. Army Robotic Combat Vehicle

Soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., work with a Project Origin experimental Robotic Combat Vehicle during a Soldier Touchpoint in November, 2020. (Army)

This is an interesting point… the consideration that an unmanned force could advance along a separate, perhaps higher risk, attack vector than a manned force operating in a command and control capacity. A series of drones and armored vehicles could directly “close to contact” with an enemy force against incoming hostile fire with no risks to soldiers, while manned armored combat vehicles use the intelligence gathered by drones to identify a more advantageous route. This, as Coffman points out, makes an enemy needing to defend against several simultaneous avenues of assault, potentially not knowing where offensive firepower might come from.

Advanced algorithms are increasingly enabling robots to manage and analyze new variables previously too complex, dynamic or fast changing for robots to navigate. AI-empowered databases can, for example, compare new incoming intelligence data off of a vast database drawing from past circumstances and courses of action and analyze a host of alternatives to recommend an optimal course of action. While human cognition is uniquely valuable and something which cannot be replicated by computers, advanced data processing and AI-enabled computing can perform procedural functions much more quickly than humans and increasingly analyze a host of otherwise disparate variables in relation to one another.

U.S Army Keeps Discovering New Tactical Advantages for Robots

They can conduct forward reconnaissance to find high value enemy targets, deliver ammunition under enemy fire, test the boundaries of enemy defenses and even fire weapons when directed by a human. They, obviously, are robots, yet the U.S. Army continues to discover new, previously unimagined tactical advantages associated with the development and deployment of ground robots.

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New operational possibilities are in part emerging through ongoing Army testing of its now-in-development Light, Medium and Heavy Robotic Combat Vehicles intended to leverage the most cutting edge current and future technologies in the areas of sensing, autonomous navigation, multi-domain networking and weapons integration.

“They maximize what humans do best and maximize what machines do best. Removing humans from the most dangerous places on the battlefield is a great thing, but we have additional tasks the robots can perform,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview.

For instance, by operating with an ability to confront and advance with no risk to soldiers in the face of enemy fire, while being remotely operated by a human, robots can breach a perimeter, attack and assess enemy defenses and even engage in direct combat in a way that fully fortifies and “defends” an approaching mechanized force, Coffman explained.

U.S. Army Robot Combat Vehicle (RCV)

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston in the controller's seat during a demo of the service's Robot Combat Vehicle at Fort Carson, Colorado. (Army)

“If you're in a defensive posture, there may be cases where you do not want humans forward off your main defensive position, because you don't want them intermixed with the enemy, and then trapped, forward of the defensive positions. Because the enemy's main body could find them and destroy them,” he said.

Should attacking manned formations get cut-off or detached from their larger force while conducting reconnaissance, intelligence of high-risk scout missions, there is a chance that soldiers could be encircled by enemy fire without protection. Robotic vehicles however, especially those enabled with autonomous sensing and an ability to send real-time targeting, video and data to aerial drones, fixed wing aircraft, armored vehicles on the move and of course ground command centers.

“We persistent, all weather ground robots that can stay on the defensive and can move forward of an attacking friendly force to develop the situation,” Coffman said.

They can also greatly extend the battlefield given the growing capacity of long-range sensors and weapons, coupled with an ability to share data from ground-to-air-to-sea if needed, enabling an attacking force to approach, close on and possibly take over a very large area of operations. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.