In what U.S. Army sources are describing as a historic first, soldiers faced simulated “enemy robots” in a training exercise the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in September. The 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry were acting as Opposing Force (OPFOR) against the 3rd Brigade Combat Team from the 101st Airborne Division.
Combat robots or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are already becoming established on the battlefield. While the basic technology has been around since the unsuccessful Soviet Teletanks of the 1930s, the modern version is maturing fast. The Russians experimentally deployed Uran-9 remote-controlled tanks armed with 30mm cannon and missiles in Syria, and plans large-scale testing in 2022 to determine their total requirement for these “fully expendable” vehicles. It is not a matter of if but how many.
Armed UGVs are not confined to near-peer opponents like Russia. Last year Turkey announced that it would mass produce an armed UGV with a number of weapon options including assorted guns and rockets. As with Turkey’s highly successful drone export industry, Turkish-made weaponized robots may soon start turning up on battlefields in North Africa and elsewhere. They may not be as sophisticated as the latest U.S models – like the agile Ghost Robotics quadruped packing a sniper rifle which can pick off targets from 1200 meters away – but they could still be dangerous new opponents requiring new tactics to counter.
The U.S. Army exercise involved two uncrewed vehicles with four remote operators and an NCO.
“This system allowed us to close with and destroy the enemy safely from a distance,” said Sergeant First Class Eugene Lackey in a U.S. Army release. “It [also enabled] us to the find the enemy before he could find us. It is a great tool and I wish we could have it for little bit longer to really see how we can change the way wars are fought.”
The robots used in the test were surrogates, meaning they were standard utility machines which were used to stand in for the type of vehicles that might be encountered in action. The type employed seems to have been the Multi-Utility Tactical Transport, a load carrier produced by General Dynamics
The vehicles in the exercise, known as Project Origin have previously been seen toting M2 .50 heavy machine guns, M249 medium machine guns, Mk 19 grenade launchers and bazooka-type rockets. They are equipped with a variety of sensors for remote targeting, including day and night cameras. It is a basic improvised combat robot, no match for the Army’s fearsome high-speed M5 Ripsaw but still useful for an exercise.
During the exercise – which included an entirely non-simulated tropical storm for added realism and complexity – the Opposing Force used its armed robots to block a key intersection for 36 hours. In ‘silent watch’ mode the vehicles operate silently on battery power with no thermal signature, making them difficult to detect. Unlike humans, the robots can wait indefinitely in ambush positions while their remote operators take meal breaks and work in shifts.
Similarly, the robots were able to prevent the airborne force from accessing helicopter landing zones. They also successfully carried out route reconnaissance, allowing their operators to check out routes before risking exposing troops to fire.
As with drones, the exercise showed that unmanned systems are ideal for long, tedious missions as well as those too hazardous for humans,.
“This validated the notion that if we assign the dumb, dirty, dangerous missions to the robots, we can re-assign our Soldiers to the high-priority complex missions and tasks,” said Major Cory Wallace, leading the unmanned vehicle side of the project.
The army plans additional exercises involving troops, which it terms Soldier Touchpoints, throughout 2022. This will guide acquisition plans for armed, uncrewed vehicles. In the near future, these type of ‘killer robots’ are likely to feature on both sides. Figuring out the best ways to use and counter them in future wars will be a matter of life and death for the humans fighting alongside them.