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Robotics Concepts Take Shape

November 2003
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Autonomous mechanized combatants would revolutionize military strategy.

Military leaders are developing a vision of the tactical operations future where adversaries will have to decide if they should send flesh and blood troops to fight nuts, bolts, circuits and sensors. The implications of this battlefield revolution are far-reaching, and initial technical capabilities exist today. Military experts agree that it is only a matter of time before nations send sophisticated machines to augment well-trained troops. They also assert that it is in the United States’ best interest to be the leader in this inevitable transformation of combat.

Before machines can step in to help people, blueprints must be drawn to define clearly how they will be used and what benefits they bring to the battlespace. The Project Alpha team at the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) Experimentation Directorate, J-9, Suffolk, Virginia, has taken up the challenge of designing these concepts. Team members believe that establishing the vision also will accelerate development of the necessary advanced technologies as industry better understands the requirements.

The Project Alpha team was formed early last year to accelerate joint force transformation by discovering ideas and moving them through the U.S. Defense Department. Three- to four-person teams use a rapid analysis process to examine new concepts and share information quickly with the appropriate decision makers. The groups have examined a number of ideas, including medical operations transformation, pattern recognition for time-critical targeting and swarming of unmanned systems.

One of the most recent concepts the group explored is tactical autonomous combatants (TACs). The goal of the study is to articulate a vision of robotic forces and promote the formation of an office at the Defense Department level that would coordinate and integrate efforts across the armed services. The report, titled “Unmanned Effects: Taking the Human Out of the Loop,” suggests that autonomous, networked and integrated robots may be the norm rather than the exception by 2025.

Gordon Johnson, unmanned effects team leader, Project Alpha, says that TACs will not replace humans on the battlefield. “The key here is that TACs will bring a whole different way of conducting combat or managing conflict than we’ve ever experienced before. At one of our workshops, one of the folks from DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] suggested that this is analogous to the introduction of tanks during World War I. A lot of people looked at tanks as replacements for mounted cavalry, but if you used them in that way, you wouldn’t have taken advantage of the special capabilities that tanks brought to bear. Over the years, we developed entirely new ways of conducting combat operations because of the special capabilities. TACs have the potential to transform combat and conflict in that same way,” he says.

Johnson stresses that it is important to understand that the term TAC refers to more than just a robot warfighter. Most of their capabilities will be evident at the tactical level, and entities will feature different degrees of autonomy. The term combatant was chosen because everyone on the battlefield—from the soldier in the field to logistics and communications personnel—is considered a combatant during an operation. For example, the team envisions TACs as vehicles that autonomously deliver supplies from point A to point B or aircraft that conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“One of the things we need to explore is what can we do with this special capability. At the tactical level, we find that these things will all be embedded with sensors. They have to be so they can decide what they have to do or pass this information on to humans who will decide what they have to do. We automatically have a network-centric battlespace. So we would have UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] sharing information with unmanned ground vehicles—or air TACs communicating with ground TACs—sharing information when feasible with littoral TACs and undersea TACs. Everything is networked. And, by the way, humans are part of that network. So humans should have access to all the information the TACs have.

“We envision a future when we’re able to give these TACs broad mission statements, send them out there and have them collaborate and cooperate to complete the mission. They will have to make decisions within the rules of engagement that they’ve already been programmed with to accomplish certain things,” Johnson explains.

Although this vision sounds promising, Johnson is quick to point out that the concept must meet three imperatives. First, TACs would only be employed on the battlefield if they were at least as good as humans in terms of improved national security. Second, TACs must demonstrate that they would help save lives by taking humans out of harm’s way. If soldiers must maintain equipment in dangerous environments, for example, the benefit TACs bring to the battlefield diminishes. Finally, evidence suggests that using machines rather than humans offers cost savings. If this is not the case, then the use of TACs would have to be re-examined.

TACs offer certain advantages over humans on the battlefield, Johnson notes. “At the tactical level, TACs aren’t going to get hungry, they’re not going to get tired, they’re not going to get ‘Dear John’ letters and have their minds concentrating on something other than what they are supposed to be thinking about. They have all the information they require that is available to blue forces at their disposal to help make decisions because they are all networked together. And if they need information that they don’t have in their local database, they’ll send out a request to ‘The Net’ and would get the information they need or collaborate with other machines and get the information they need,” he says.

Because machines are fearless, they bring a whole different level of capability to the battlefield, he adds. An enemy artillery barrage would have little impact on a group of TACs because the machines would not duck, run or hide but rather would continue advancing and attacking an enemy. “The first thing humans do as soon as artillery starts firing is they hunker down, wait for the artillery to pass and hope they survive. Machines don’t care about that. When humans are out there, if one of their comrades gets injured, of course the first thing they want to do is remove that human from danger. It takes perhaps four or five people out of combat because they want to save their comrade’s life. Machines don’t care when another machine is hit,” Johnson states.

The tactical implications of the differences between human and machine are striking. For example, in warfare today, the consensus is that when a force is reduced by 35 percent through attrition, it is combat-ineffective. With machines, however, every single machine would have to be destroyed before the battle would be truly over.

Johnson shares another example. Under normal circumstances, a commander would not attempt to pin down an enemy by sending a platoon of infantry soldiers into a machine gun nest unless the mission was extremely critical to national defense and alternatives were not available. But commanders may be willing to send in machines that would trap the enemy so that other forces—men or machines—could come in from another angle. “You might send machines into an early forced entry operation to weaken the enemy position and sacrifice every machine, so that when the humans came in, they would have an easier time of it,” Johnson proposes. Even if every machine is destroyed, the commander still would have gathered considerable intelligence—enough information to decide if humans should be sent into the situation, he adds.

Technologies could be developed today that would allow machines to sense a report of gunfire in an urban environment to within one meter, triangulate the position of the shooter and return fire within a fraction of a second. “If it can get within one meter, it’s killed the person who’s firing. So, essentially what we’re saying is that anyone who would shoot at our forces would die. Before he can drop that weapon and run, he’s probably already dead. Well now, these cowards in Baghdad would have to pay with blood and guts every time they shot at one of our folks. The cost of poker went up significantly,” he states.

Because chemical, biological or radiological agents would not affect TACs, they could be sent into areas where a commander suspects these substances are present then relay environmental information to the command post. At this point, the commander can decide whether humans should proceed.

In addition to tactical implications, TACs would present strategic and operational ramifications. “One of the biggest weaknesses we have in the United States is that we loathe the loss of human life. And our enemies know that all they have to do is ‘attrit’ us day after day—another body, another death, more casualties day after day after day—and the folks at home will be clamoring for the return of forces as those casualties mount. But if all we’re losing are machines, or if we reduce the exposure of humans to that danger, then our ability to withstand that sort of conflict becomes even better. And the enemy, are they going to give up blood and guts to kill machines? I’m guessing not. They will think twice about it,” Johnson says.

Real world examples of this include Iraq, where today casualties occur at checkpoints. TACs could be used to screen vehicles before they arrive at manned stations. Or, if TACs were placed at the Korean demilitarized zone, the North Korean military would have to decide if it would send soldiers to fight machines. “Would they want to sacrifice their own soldiers, who are nonreplaceable? We send silicon and steel out there, and we can replace them,” Johnson says. In places like Taiwan, where there is some question about whether the United States would send defensive forces, the option to send machines erases doubt about U.S. intent, he adds.

The Alpha Team envisions additional uses for TACs. Johnson explains that they also could be used as ambulances, automatic minesweeping machines and call-for-fire devices. In each instance, the job would get done without putting humans at risk. TACs could be employed in ways that would keep adversaries busy so they cannot organize attacks. Small TACs could act as mobile mines that would change position and evade detection.

The team recognizes that several challenges must be overcome before this vision can be achieved. Reliable, long-lasting power is the longest pole in the tent, Johnson says. Research is underway in this area, and he believes solutions are possible.

In terms of electronic warfare, the team is unsure about how TAC capabilities would be affected. Even today, once communications are cut off between humans, information becomes unreliable after time. This also would be the case if signals were jammed between TACs; however, some level of autonomy would still permit them to complete missions, just as humans do today. To explore how to solve some of these problems, the Alpha Team advocates experimentation and simulations.

Another problem that must be addressed is the use of TACs by an enemy. “This isn’t a question of if it’s going to happen; it’s a question of when. It’s a question of who’s going to be there first. We’re advocating that we in the United States, with our technological might and economic might, need to be the very first in the battlespace with this kind of capability. That will help us figure out how to counter them,” Johnson says.

Dr. Russ Richards, director, Project Alpha, says that the United States has been fortunate that so far adversaries have retreated or capitulated after losing far less than 35 percent of their forces. However, he would hate to think of going up against an opponent who would be willing to fight until every entity is dead. “So it’s a future prospect that is scary. We’ve argued that the United States has the most capabilities to achieve this vision. We think we can be there first, but eventually I would imagine that all countries are going to have TACs as a significant proportion of their forces. That’s going to put a whole new spin on future warfighting,” he says.

If the United States is to lead this new chapter in modern warfare, a joint vision for how TACs will be used and how they will change the tactics of war is required, Johnson suggests. The Defense Department has not yet developed this vision, so the services are creating capabilities independently. Richards proposes that what stands in the way of developing a vision is the skepticism about autonomous machines on the battlefield. One way to convince skeptics would be to demonstrate the capabilities, and even then there will always be some naysayers, he states.

In advocating for further work on a joint vision, Johnson says that progress in the area of military robotics and its use on the battlefield could fall prey to what he calls the “can’t do” loop. People do not believe something is possible, so they do not create a vision or a joint concept. Without a joint concept, joint experimentation does not take place to determine the best approach. Because the best alternatives are not identified, requirements cannot be written for the scientific and engineering community. Researchers continue to develop new technologies, but without a vision some capabilities are deemed not applicable and are shelved. Often, the result is abandoned research on technologies required to demonstrate the concept, which leads back to the top of the loop: The capability is not possible.

Richards says industry has pursued robotics and is making significant progress; however, many of the accomplishments are in specific pieces of technology rather than the comprehensive program. According to Johnson, successful projects result when the commercial sector understands the vision, is funded then is given the freedom to develop solutions on its own.

The team’s report will move through JFCOM’s chain of command, and the Project Alpha team also will discuss its vision with other Defense Department organizations.  In addition, the team will simultaneously work with joint concept development teams at the J-9 to ensure that unmanned effects concepts are integrated into future work.