More robots, fewer people. That’s where the US military is headed in the future. But what kind of robots?
Army Gen. Robert Cone, four-star commander of the powerful Training and Doctrine Command (aka TRADOC), said that the service is studying how robots could help replace 25 percent of the soldiers in each of its 4,000-strong combat brigades. That’s because the current budget crunch is pushing the military to replace expensive human beings – and the expensive hardware required to keep them alive — with cheaper and expendable robots. The Army is under particular pressure because it has the most people, spending almost half its budget on pay and benefits, and those people take the heaviest casualties.
What’s hotly debated, however, is what jobs robots should do, under what level of human control. Should do they the drudge work of war, sparing humans the “dirty, dull, and dangerous” jobs like clearing roadside bombs? Or should we trust robots to kill on their own initiative?
The Army basically wants R2-D2s and mechanized mules, helpful bots that haul supplies, scout ahead, and provide technical support to the human heroes who do the actual fighting. They want small robots that trundle alongside the foot troops, loaded with sophisticated sensors so they can point out potential dangers, “robots that respond, if you will, like a bird dog,” said TRADOC’s Maj. Gen. William Hix in a conference call with journalists this morning. They want mid-size robots that carry extra supplies for infantrymen on long patrols, a concept once officially called MULE. They want big trucks that drive themselves, entire supply convoys where a long line of robots plays “follow the leader” behind a single human-driven vehicle at the front. They want scout drones that fly ahead of manned helicopters and report back what they find.
But, as TRADOC Col. Kevin Felix once told me, “No Terminators.”
Not so outside the Army. In a thinktank report released today, 20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age, former Navy Under Secretary Robert Work and co-author Shawn Brimley call for developing “autonomous attack systems” cheap and numerous enough to form “reconnaissance-strike swarms.” Think big, robotic killer bees that attack with smart bombs instead of stingers and that coordinate their maneuvers using wi-fi instead of pheromones.