The Ukraine War is Paving the way for Robotic Warfare in the Future
Throughout history, nations have sought to achieve a technological military advantage. Strong nations have stayed strong by being the first to develop breakthrough munitions (from fire and gunpowder to nuclear weapons) and munitions delivery systems (from catapults and cannons to B-52s and rockets).
We’ll always have conflict, and we’ll always have nations and revolts as people fight for what they think is right and fair. And we’ll always have despots who tragically send their armies to fight for the sake of dominance and conquest, or out of a sense of paranoia.
While it may not be apparent given what we have seen in the early Russian military tactics, the use of machine-based weapons has steadily been replacing the use of human fighters. But since those initial days in the fight for Kyiv, the skies over Ukraine and the cities across that country are becoming a real-time laboratory for the testing of new UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) and land-based AMR (autonomous mobile robots) military technology.
Your Tax Dollars Funding Military Breakthroughs
In the last 60 years, many technology breakthroughs had an initial military application – from velcro and duct tape to portable 2-way radios, drones, and digital photography. And we shouldn’t forget that the Department of Defense is credited with developing an information disseminating system that evolved into a precursor to the Internet.
That’s why I make it a point to keep track of what DARPA is up to. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a relatively small office within the Department of Defense, was established in 1957 after the U.S.S.R. demonstrated technological superiority in the space race. The very clear mission of DARPA is to make sure the U.S. never again falls behind in the technology race when it comes to national defense matters.
Fortunately, DARPA seems to have been granted considerable leeway to pursue imaginative projects, including robots that can fuel themselves by eating plants, robotic infantry mules, and mechanical elephants. That kind of autonomy and license to fail is important because discoveries are hit and miss propositions and innovators shouldn’t be afraid of or be discouraged from, the more than occasional miss.
And when it comes to military robotics, DARPA has furthered UAV technology with advances in onboard radar systems, extended flying time, reduced detectability, and more.
Training Our Troops
Our nation’s military battlefield training, for example at the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin California and the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, are preparing our troops to react to UAVs and work alongside and better utilize AMRs in battlefield conditions.
Military leaders are quite outspoken about how advances in robotics and AI, and presumably their military applications, are taking the form of a “weapons race,” primarily with an eye on China.
Military Robotics History
The concept of military robotics is somewhat imprecise. Technically, it encompasses both UAV and AMR land-based crawling systems.
As we move further up the autonomous food chain, for some, the word “robot” applies to UAVs and AMRs with human operators who are watching local conditions through cameras and taking at least some part in the operations. And when it comes to UAVs there are multiple degrees of automation in that level of robotic autonomy. More rudimentary UAVs are completely person-flown. Newer models autonomously handle many of the navigational details using artificial intelligence, leaving the more complex maneuvering and final weapons engagement to off-site operators.
Other observers take a more literal, science fiction-like perspective to robot UAVs and AMRs, envisioning if not storm troopers, then AMRs and UAVs that not only maneuver to, around, and over the battlefield but make the lethal fire/not fire decisions on their own based on AI programs and machine learning.
State of the Art is In Ukraine
The first military flying drones were essentially remote-controlled small planes, developed just prior to World War 2. It would be another 60 years before they were weaponized as the U.S. armed Predator drones with Hellfire missiles were used in the Middle East after 9/11.
With their relatively low cost, today’s simpler UAVs have been described as the offspring of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in wars just a decade ago. They became the weapon of choice for many small countries, and they have made a big difference, often in local conflicts that many of us aren’t even aware of. Their value lies in their lethality and their propaganda effect.
Meanwhile, back on the ground, lethal unmanned AMRs have already been used in the early stages of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. These looked like miniature tanks (many of them were improvised) and were controlled by handlers similar to how UAVs are managed.
Going Full Autonomous
What about robot weapons of the most Star Wars kind – those that are fully empowered to seek and destroy, operating independently? The United Nations recently debated the issue of banning these weapons and putting them in the same category as land mines and booby traps. However, they failed to reach a consensus.
The feasibility of these weapons isn’t in doubt. It’s just a question of how well they can do their job and who’s accountable for a disastrous mechanical malfunction or an imperfect AI targeting algorithm. After all, battlefields are messy and they often extend into cities where civilians are present.
There are reports, in fact, that these autonomous flying “killer robots,” technically known as “lethal autonomous weapons systems,” may have already been utilized on more than one battlefield – in 2021 in Libya and earlier this year by the Russian military in Ukraine. In both cases, it wasn’t fully confirmed that the UAVs were operating in a fully autonomous mode, but they had the capability of doing exactly that.
The Future of Robotic Warfare
The genie is out of the bottle, and I don’t think we’re likely to remove or prevent the use of autonomous “killer robots” from future battlefields. Ironically, the major powers will probably be the least likely to use them against each other.
The United Nations will continue to try to outlaw autonomous killer robots, and they may ultimately succeed thanks to the endorsement of major countries. But outlaw nations will use them regardless of whoever signed the latest peace treaty.
The Turkish version of the autonomous UAV sold to armed forces in Libya, the Russian version used in Ukraine, and others will be available in the underworld arms markets relatively cheap. They’ll be snapped up by rogue dictators and generals who will use them against their adversaries, internally or externally, in second and third-level conflicts where there are few neutral observers. The citizens and soldiers of these nations will increasingly be victims of this autonomous, deadly technology.
In the meantime, the major countries will continue to improve the lethality and capabilities of their UAVs and AMRs. These weapons will have greater and greater autonomous capability, to the point where a flip of the switch would make them fully autonomous. Nations will need to have this capability in order to maintain an uneasy deterrent status quo, similar to the nuclear deterrent philosophy.
And just a final thought to keep us humbled and remind us of the stakes of a major war, this quote from Albert Einstein seems appropriate for our time:
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”