Will Combat Robots Replace Human Soldiers on Future Battlefields?

Armies all over the world are competing with each other to develop armed combat robots to replace human soldiers on the battlefield.
Keywords: Robot, Army, War, Combat, Machine, Battlefield, Laws, Soldiers, Performance, Emotions, Conflict
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The word ‘Robot’ was coined by Karel Capek a Czech playwright, and novelist in 1920. It was derived from an old Slavonic word ‘robota’ meaning “servitude,” “forced labor” or “drudgery”. The word was used to depict all kinds of forced labor or service that humans preferred not to do. In Russian, the verb ‘robot’ applies to any work or profession. 

The Webster’s dictionary defines the robot as an automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.

Russian-born American science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov used the word for the first time in 1942 in his short story “Runabout” in which he described robots as helpful servants. Asimov viewed robots as “a better, cleaner race” and proposed “Three Laws of Robotics” that robots must follow:

Law One: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Law Two: A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Law Three: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But some 80 years down the line, it seems as if all the man-machine equations are about to change.

Today, armies all over the world are competing with each other to develop armed combat robots to replace human soldiers on the battlefield. The idea behind developing these smart killer robots is to collect intelligence as well as carry out search and rescue missions and attacks.

Unlike human soldiers, these combat robots don’t get tired, feel sleepy, hide behind obstacles or close their eyes due to fear or pain. Hence they can without fail perform their duty 24x7x365 days a year.  

Another significant advantage of the robotic soldiers is that they can be programmed to operate on their own for extended periods of time and even recharge their own batteries while operating behind enemy lines. The combat robots can be used for reconnaissance, surveillance, sniper detection, and neutralizing explosive devices—without irrational feelings like revenge, hatred, fear or emotion clouding their judgment.  

The most significant advantage of combat robots is that they can fight wars on their own without human oversight and control. Once activated, these weapon systems can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator on the ground, air, underwater or in space. This can minimise human casualties, reduce the chances of error and enhance the combat potential of forces in war. Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled combat robots can process a large volume of data and make decisions fast. Such robots can strengthen the security of military bases, patrol border areas, identify potential threats, and disarm IEDs in Counter-Insurgency (CI) Operations. Likewise, robot sentries can predict enemy behaviour and make life easier for regular troops by keeping an eye on the international border and line of control in harsh weather conditions.

From the military perspective, combat robots can act as a force multiplier and reduce casualties by removing human war-fighters from dangerous missions.

Another dimension in this spectrum is long-term savings due to the deployment of an army of military robots. According to conservative estimates the loss of “each human soldier in Afghanistan costs the Pentagon roughly $850,000 per year” or even more. In contrast, a lightweight, fully armed military robot like TALON—costs $230,000 and can help reduce the size of a brigade from four thousand to three thousand soldiers–  without compromising on efficiency and effectiveness.

China aspires to become the world leader in AI-enabled technology by 2030 and is playing a lead role in the arms race to develop a series of combat robots, unmanned tanks and armoured vehicles to meet the demands of future warfare. The Chinese PLA has developed their first unmanned main battle tank, which can be remotely-controlled by a soldier behind a computer terminal. The main armament of the tank using the Type 59 platform includes a 100mm cannon, 7.62mm coaxial machine gun and 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine gun mounted on its turret. Above all, the PLA is developing a number of unmanned warships, armed amphibious boats, fighter jets, drones and combat helicopters. China’s future vision is to build ‘iron man’ suits which enable soldiers to fly. The suits designed to provide extra energy, strength, speed and stamina to the users are equipped with intelligent systems that can read users’ intention and synchronize it with their movements. 

According to intelligence reports, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is replacing regular troops by a number of machine gun-carrying robots along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. 

This is the spirit behind British Army’s Project Theseus which seeks to explore how robots can reduce the risk to human lives in conflict zones. The UK Ministry of Defence is working with industry to develop the lightweight affordable novel combat aircraft (LANCA) and autonomous amphibious vehicles.  The LANCA nicknamed ‘loyal wingman’ will be the UK’s first uncrewed platform designed to provide a battle-winning advantage over hostile forces. Armed with missiles, surveillance and electronic warfare technology it will fly at high-speed alongside fighter jets, target to shoot down enemy aircraft and protect the friendly F-35 and Typhoon jets against surface-to-air missiles.

The British army is experimenting with a number of integrated robotic and autonomous systems (RAS) which can enter hazardous areas or warzones without the need for a human driver. Such devices are sure to transform the character of conflict and how the Army will organise, operate and fight. The British Army plans to operate RAS-enhanced light Brigade Combat Teams by 2025 as part Human Machine Teaming Project. And if all goes on as planned, it is projected to have close to 30,000 “robot soldiers” working alongside the regular army troops by 2030. 

The Royal Air Force’s inventory of autonomous systems includes Brimstone, a fire-and-forget missile that can be programmed to search a specific area to independently identify, track, and strike targets even beyond the visual range without human guidance. The Brimstone was used extensively to seek and destroy moving targets on land or sea in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The Brimstone accelerates past the sound barrier within three seconds of being launched and does not require any further interaction from the launch platform in the post-launch phase. The highly advanced guidance system of the missile uses its own ‘brain’ to calculate and keep track of the speed, distance, elevation, and trajectory of the target. What more, the missile can be programmed to avoid causing any inadvertent damage to friendly forces and seek out and target the enemy only within a specified area. The missile is also fitted with a programmable self-destruct mechanism.

The US Department of Defence’s Unmanned Systems Roadmap: 2007-2032 provides the rationale for deploying autonomous weapons systems and robots that are better suited than humans for “dull, dirty or dangerous’ missions.” The MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapons System, already being used by the US Navy since the 1980s, is capable of detecting, evaluating, tracking, engaging, and using force against anti-ship missiles and high-speed aircraft threats without any human commands.

The US Navy, the largest and most powerful navy in the world, is developing “ghost” fleets of unmanned ships like the Sea Hunter, which can operate for extended periods at sea and even guide itself in and out of a port without a single crew member. The 132-foot-long medium-unmanned vessel developed for submarine hunting and counter-mine missions, created history when it sailed from California to Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor and back again, without a single sailor on board to guide it. 

Project Maven, another U.S. Department of Defence initiative launched in April 2017, seeks to win wars with computer algorithms and artificial intelligence. The USA reportedly deployed a series of unmanned robots in Iraq and Afghanistan to enable military personnel to investigate suspicious objects and perform dangerous tasks from a safe distance.

South Korea has developed the Samsung SGR-A1 – an autonomous “combat robot” capable of detecting targets up to 4 Km away during the day and 2 Km during the night. The armed robot, capable of tracking enemy movement and firing without human intervention has replaced human soldiers along the 250-kilometers-long border with North Korea – one of the most disturbed border areas in the world.  Unlike human soldiers, the SRG-A1 can continuously guard major military bases in extreme weather conditions without getting tired. The primary objective of these autonomous robotic guards is to perform the task which would otherwise require at least two or more human guards. The Samsung SGR-1 can distinguish between friend and foe and sound an alarm or verbally command an enemy to surrender. In case the intruder doesn’t do so, the SGR-1 can fire rubber bullets or Daewoo K3 machine gunfire depending upon the threat perception. Normally the decision to open fire has to be taken by a human in the control room. But in the automatic mode, the robot can take the decision on its own without the human in the loop.

Not to be left behind, Israel has developed the Harpy Air Defense Suppression System an all-weather fire and forget autonomous weapon which can suppress enemy air defences (SEAD) with high accuracy. It can stealthily hover or loiter over enemy territory for up to nine hours to detect, attack, and destroy any hostile radar without a human in the decision-making loop. Unlike other anti-radar missiles it cannot be easily neutralized by conventional countermeasures techniques and can be safely launched from a ground-based vehicle miles away from the active battle zone.   

Another feather in Israel’s cap is Guardium – an armed robot being used to patrol the Gaza–Israel border. It is equipped with radars, microphones, sensors, hostile fire indicators and an infrared camera that can spot intruders even in the dark. The Guardium can autonomously travel at up to 70-80 kms per hour and intercept trespassers near the border fence before security personnel arrive. It can send information to the command station about its location, destination, and surroundings and do as instructed or do what it thinks is right – without any human interaction in the autonomous mode. 

Russia is developing crewless combat vehicles with automatic guns which can operate autonomously. The Russian army is deploying a Multifunctional Nerekhta Combat Unmanned Ground Vehicle (CUGV) or Armed Unmanned Ground Vehicle (AUGV) which can optionally accommodate up to five fighters and is equipped with an unmanned helicopter. The Nerekhta CUGV can greatly enhance the combat capabilities of military units and reduce personnel losses. The CUGV equipped with front and rear cameras and infrared illumination can be used for patrolling, reconnaissance, locating the enemy’s artillery positions and casualty evacuation.  

Equipped with a 12.7-mm Kord machine gun or 7.62-mm Kalashnikov machine gun, and an AG-30M automatic grenade launcher, the CUGV is fully protected against small-arms bullets and grenade spalls. It can function as a transporter, support, reconnaissance vehicle, and also be used for explosive disposal. The robot, weighing close to one and a half tons, can reach a speed of up to 32 km/h and overcome any terrain, from snow to sand.   

Another lethal combat robot in the Russian inventory is the Uran-9, a tracked unmanned combat ground vehicle (UCGV) designed for fire support, reconnaissance, and anti-tank missions. It is equipped with an Ataka anti-tank guided missile launcher, 7.62-mm machine gun, Shmel-M rocket-assisted flamethrower, and a 30-mm 2A42 auto-cannon and is capable of destroying enemy armoured vehicles from a distance of 3,000 to 5,000 metres.

Both Uran-9 and Nerekhta reconnaissance and fire support robots participated in the Zapad-2021 strategic military exercises.Not to be left behind, the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is developing robotic soldiers with a very high level of intelligence and capability to differentiate between a friend and foe. It all goes as planned, these robots like Daksh, a remote-controlled robotic vehicle for detecting and destroying bombs and IEDs, may be ready for deployment in the Indian Army around 2023. The DRDO is also developing Muntra (Mission Unmanned Tracked) –a family of unmanned armoured vehicles for surveillance, mine clearing, and operating in nuclear or chemical contaminated zones and a robotic mule capable of carrying heavy luggage weighing up to 400 Kgs in mountainous terrains.

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Neeraj Mahajan

Mr. Neeraj Mahajan is a media professional with over 30 years of experience in print, electronic, web and mobile media. He is the Editor of Taazakhabar News and World News Report.

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