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The Army is arming robots with anti-tank missiles to close with and destroy enemy armored vehicles in mechanized formations, a cutting edge development which could prove decisive in tank battles while keeping manned vehicles away from incoming enemy fire.
While decisions regarding the use of lethal force will still be made by humans operating in a command and control capacity, forward positioned Army Robotic Combat Vehicles can now be armed with Javelin anti-tank missiles as well as cannons, grenade launchers and crew served weapons. In a recent live fire demonstration, Army weapons developers put this to the test. The intent was to make sure attacks could be precise, controlled by human decision-makers and extremely lethal.
“We shot a Javelin. It’s the shakeout testing and the safety testing so you can conduct live fire with soldiers and make sure that it is safe,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told Warrior in an interview.
The targeting and attack process, involving the shortening of the sensor-to-shooter attack timeline, is now greatly expedited by AI. Should Javelin-armed robots be in position to find, identify track and ultimately destroy enemy tanks on human command, they could present a formidable dilemma to potential adversaries. Being robotic, the vehicles can be much lighter and faster because they do not have to operate with the kind of heavy armor needed to protect manned crews. This means the tank-killing robots could maneuver quickly into attack formations and potentially out-run or gain advantage over enemy tanks.
The weapons integrated into the robots are also fortified by advanced computing and a next-generation sensor suite developed to see targets at greater ranges and process incoming information to organize data and analyze scenarios for human decision makers. In this respect, an armed robot could not only be lethal but also operate as a key battlefield node able to send information in real time to multiple platforms to include air assets, manned command and control centers, other air and ground drones and other armored and tactical vehicles on the move
While stopping short of offering specifics, Coffman even said armed robots could support air-defense missions while on the move should they be integrated with existing missiles now arming Strykers such as Hellfires or Stingers.
“I think anything is possible. If it is in the inventory, you can put it on the robot,” Coffman said.
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Could small armies of armed robots descend from the sky into hostile enemy fire? Could they storm ashore from ship-to-shore transport craft in support of an amphibious assault from the ocean?
The answer seems to be a clear yes from senior Army weapons developers now arming and firing a new generation of high-tech combat robots. Grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons and crew-served machine guns are all already arming now-in-development army robots, however one very significant point of emphasis for Army weapons developers is that, per Pentagon and Army doctrine, armed robots will not use “lethal force” unless directed by a human in a role of command and control. Should the platforms be properly networked, however, they can find targets, track them and destroy them when directed by human decision makers.
It is within this context that the Army is expanding its concepts of operations for armed robots into a more multi-domain paradigm, given rapid advances in multi-service networking technologies and strategic emphasis. As evidence of this, senior Army weapons developers say armed robots are already in demand in key high-threat flashpoints such as Europe and the Pacific.
“We got a demand signal from other theaters, to have robots come and deploy to both the Pacific into Europe for operations and exercises and operations,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told Warrior.
Of course robots are not going to be using “lethal” force autonomously, yet emerging AI-enabled algorithms are fast increasing the number of key functions robotic platforms can perform independently. With this in mind, armed robots are being viewed and developed as multi-domain war systems, which could clearly add new tactical advantages in places like Europe and the Pacific.
“So these could easily contribute to an amphibious operation. They are C-130 transportable as well, so you can get them over anywhere,” Coffman said.
In Europe, for example, a robot carrying C-130 could land in an austere forward environment to unload armed drones to attack enemy formations. Using new applications of autonomy, the armed Robotic Combat Vehicles could roll off a cargo plane such as a C-130 or C-17 and perform surveillance, targeting or resupply missions in high-risk dangerous territories without needing human intervention. Should the US Army have air superiority in this kind of contingency, or even be operating with close air support, then small groups of robots could airdrop from the sky in combat operations or drive off into enemy fire.
Extending this reasoning, there certainly seems to be no reason why armed robotic platforms could not support amphibious and maritime warfare by dispatching from mother ships aboard transport craft equipped to move a heavy payload of 15-ton robots into combat.
The Navy’s new Ship-to-Shore connector, for example, is built to move 70-ton Abrams tanks from ship to shore, so it certainly could carry armed robots. Such an operation could potentially bring an unprecedented tactical advantage to an amphibious assault as it could bring heavy firepower ashore under enemy attack without putting sailors, marines or soldiers at risk.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.