Video Above: Army to Assess Robot-Combat Tactics

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) Robots fired machine guns, grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles at a range of targets during a Robotic Combat Vehicle live-fire warfare preparation exercise, a key step toward integrating a new fleet of armed ground drones to support future Army combat operations.

The addition of these kinds of robots, with humans of course maintaining decision-making authority regarding the use of lethal force, continues to greatly reshape Army tactics, maneuver formations and cross-domain combat operations.

“We actually shot live bullets off of these robots. It's really exciting what we've proven out thus far, not only are the robots working extremely well, the payloads are accurate and effective,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview.

The live fire exercises were with the Robot Combat Vehicle Light and Robotic Combat Vehicle Medium, two interrelated, yet distinct Army robot efforts intended to introduce new levels of autonomy, weapons attack and surveillance for ground troops advancing to contact with an enemy. During the live fire tests, the sensor, payload and weapons integration performance exceeded expectations, Coffman explained.

“We are seeing an increased stability or increased range that we didn't think was possible previously,” he added.

The robots were designed with technical standards intended to enable rapid integration of any sensor or upgrade so that it can receive software updates and new weapons as new threats emerge over time.

“Really anything is possible because the great people that helped us with requirements were very clear. They wanted these robots to be payload agnostic, and because you can plug and play different things on top of the robot, the interface between the payload and the robot has proven very capable,” Coffman said.

Coffman explained that, due to advances in cross-domain networking and hardened connectivity, command and control for the robots could be performed from dismounted soldiers, larger manned vehicles or even air platforms navigating, directing and controlling the robots.

With the intent of optimizing manned-unmanned teaming possibilities, the robots are engineered with advanced, AI-enabled computer algorithms intended to enable progressively expanding degrees of autonomy. More and more, robotic sensors can perform tasks independent of human intervention such as navigational functions, sensing, networking and data analysis. Coffman explained that through systems such as aided target recognition, robots can themselves find, identify and acquire targets and perform autonomous obstacle avoidance exercises, but still benefit greatly from humans operating in a command and control capacity.

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“For target acquisition, that's the payload and then if you talk about autonomous behavior, for the robot itself, like right now we know we can execute waypoint navigation, we can have teleoperation and we can do obstacle avoidance. And we're really making huge strides on additional autonomous behaviors in the missions they do,” Coffman said.

Coffman explained that the plan was to use the robots in tactical missions with soldiers to inform senior service leaders about when they may become a program of record.

“We're going to take those, those four lights, those four mediums, and then the four surrogates that we built for last year's robotic soldier experiment, and we are going to form them into a company,” he explained.

Emerging Army robots will massively extend the battlefield, enable more dispersed operations, deliver ammunition, network with air and ground drones, surveil forward high-risk areas and even fire weapons to attack when directed by a human, all variables which are leading the Army to craft newer kinds of concepts for traditional Combined Arms Maneuver warfare.

Unmanned systems and armed robots, increasingly enabled by AI, are expected to greatly change combat maneuver formations by virtue of not only keeping soldiers themselves at safer standoff distances but also expediting the gathering, processing and transmitting of crucial, time sensitive intelligence data in war. Thus, the premise of manned-unmanned teaming, a fast-evolving concept the Army is quickly bringing to new levels by firing machine guns, Javelin anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers at targets from Robotic Combat Vehicles in live-fire exercises. The robots, Army developers explained, are performing as well or better than expected in terms of demonstrating an ability to integrate a wide range of weapons applications and leverage advanced computer processing to gather and organize fast incoming data.

The integrated concept, increasingly becoming multi-domain, is to leverage unprecedented information processing speeds made possible by AI-empowered computer algorithms and connect with those faculties and attributes unique to human cognition through manned-unmanned teaming.

“This maximizes what humans do best and maximizes what machines do best. So the repetitive nature and removing humans from the most dangerous places on the battlefield are great, great things. But we have additional tasks that the robots can perform,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next-Gen Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, told The National Interest in an interview.

Coffman explained how the robots can perform offensive or defensive missions depending upon how a given combat scenario evolves.

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

Traditional Combined Arms Maneuver, which approaches combat with an interwoven mix of integration applications such as artillery, air support, long-range ground fires, mechanized armored combat vehicles and dismounted soldiers all operating in a synchronized fashion in coordination with one another. While this concept still very much provides the conceptual basis or point of departure for modern adaptations, future Combined Arms Maneuver strategies are likely to expand in scope and application to incorporate a much larger, less-condensed, yet networked area of combat operations. Perhaps most of all, robots armed with weapons, high-resolution, long-range targeting sensors and AI-capable data analysis will facilitate more cross-domain functions wherein targeting specifics can be transmitted from ground robots up to armed drones, helicopters, supporting manned vehicles or even fighter jets. 

- 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.