Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used for combat purposes since Austria deployed bomb-laden balloons controlled by long copper wires in 1849 during the First Italian War of Independence. Granted, that was a pretty rudimentary display by the standards of contemporary air warfare. UAVs came a long way between Austria’s primitive foray into combat aeronautics and when a U.S. Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile at an enemy target for the first time in Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. That mission failed, but it nevertheless marked a major turning point in the history of remote-operated and automated warfare. Technological advances in those areas immediately began to expeditiously accelerate and continue to do so today.
Since those early days of Operation in Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, drone strikes as a means of neutralizing suspected terrorists have become chillingly commonplace events. Indeed, they are ubiquitous in regions of some countries. The U.S. military and CIA heavily relied on drones for both surveillance and targeted killings under U.S. President George W. Bush’s tenure, and U.S. President Barack Obama substantially increased their usage when he came into office in 2009. As Micah Zenko reports at the New York Times, “Whereas President George W. Bush authorized approximately 50 drone strikes that killed 296 terrorists and 195 civilians in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, Obama has authorized 506 strikes that have killed 3,040 terrorists and 391 civilians.”
While the U.S. is perhaps the most notorious operator of armed UAVs, it of course isn’t the only country deploying drones for military purposes. The U.K., China, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, South Africa, and Somalia (reportedly) all have weaponized drones as well. Israel has an impressive fleet of its domestic Heron TP UAV, and plans to triple its size by 2020. In February Nigeria used drones to bomb the terrorist group Boko Haram for the first time. Numerous other countries, such as Russia and India, have surveillance drones like the Searcher, which is also manufactured in Israel, and are in the process of developing weaponized drones. Even terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic State are trying to acquire or develop weaponized drones — sort of. However, as one source points out, “this is where the distinctions between ‘weaponized drone’ and ‘model-aircraft-with-a-grenade-strapped-to-it’ begin to become important.”
Technology tends to disperse quickly, and the rapid spread of drone warfare is due in part to Chinese and Israeli technology, which can be both less expensive and easier to obtain than U.S. drone technology, for instance. “Whereas U.S. firms are barred by law from selling unmanned aerial vehicles to countries with histories of human-rights abuses,” writes David Axe for the Daily Beast, “Israeli industry suffers no such constraints.” As a case in point, Axe adds that other customers for Israel’s Searcher drones include Thailand, a nation ruled by a unelected military junta, and Azerbaijan, a country saddled with a “poor rights record,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Drone and remote-controlled warfare are most often associated with aircraft, but similar technologies are being applied to land and sea fighting systems as well. Several countries are developing, or already using, automated sentry guns, drone warships and submarines, and unmanned tanks or other “robots”. Weapons developers are also working on technology to integrate more advanced systems. For instance, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Naval Research, and the U.S. Air Force are trying to create “swarms” of inexpensive drones. Another drone program would allow fighter pilots to control small fleets of support craft in combat. There are also plans to have operators control drones with their minds. With these technologies, and others, coming together it’s easy to see glimpses of the fictional Skynet automated defense system from The Terminator franchise in our near future.
Sentry Guns and Robot Tanks are the Ground Combatants of the Future
Offiziere.ch previously reported on South Korea deploying sentry guns along the Demilitarized Zone, and Israel doing the same along its border with Gaza. Israel relies on the weapons far more than South Korea, where they are still in an exploratory phase. Both South Korea’s SGR-1 sentry guns and Israel’s Sentry Tech system have fully-automated and “slave” modes, the latter requiring a human operator. Neither country, however, has gone full auto with the weapons — yet.
In Israel the sentry guns are still remotely operated, and engaging a human target requires confirmation from both the operator and a commanding officer at the control center. Despite this, the sentry guns have still been controversial, with Israeli security forces claiming it targets only terrorists while Palestinian groups claim civilians have been killed. Disputes like this are certain to become more troubling if Israel moves forward with plans to transition the guns to a fully-automated, closed-loop system that will not require any human interaction or oversight. If that happens, the guns will identify targets on their own based on potentially suspicious movements a subject makes or suspicious objects in the subject’s possession. It may be a coincidence, but earlier this year an Israeli firm named Faception announced it had developed a facial recognition program that could identify terrorists, among others, based on the physical traits of their faces.
“The technology is geared to identify a range of specific traits, beyond spotting terrorists, including, for example, identifying extroverts, people with high IQs and even professional poker players,” Israeli daily Haaretz reports. “In a demonstration of the technology’s effectiveness, [CEO Shai] Gilboa said Faception scanned 50 participants at a recent poker competition and picked out four of them as top players. Two of the four finished in the top three of the tournament.”
Programs like Faception sound farfetched, and the potential for them being deployed as part of automated weapons systems definitely raises serious ethical questions, but one thing is certain: Weapons developers are looking for ways to allow systems to identify and engage targets completely on their own. According to Gilboa, at least one homeland security agency has already contracted them to test the system.
Israel is also a leader in the development of small remote controlled tanks and other combat robots. Most of what they’re currently working on is still very limited, by size and functionality. They’re tactical combat robots comparable to those used by police forces and militaries around the world to perform reconnaissance or defuse or destroy bombs. One of Israel’s combat robots, the Dogo, does pack a pistol though.
Moscow may be lacking when it comes to weaponized UAVs, but they’re holding their own as far as remote controlled tanks. The Uran-9 robotic armored vehicle is armed with a 2A72 30mm automatic cannon, a 7.62mm machine gun, and M120 Ataka anti-tank guided missiles. It’s not a big tank, but it can do some damage. “The inclusion of the Ataka missiles gives the diminutive robot the capability to engage and destroy the most modern battle tanks from ranges as great as 8,000 meters,” writes Dave Majumdar for the National Interest. “The robots are also fitted with an array of sensors — including a laser warning system and target detection, identification and tracking equipment.” The Ataka may make it useful to engage heavier tanks when necessary, but the Uran-9 is primarily intended to provide fire support for counter-terrorism units and special operations forces and conduct reconnaissance. It wouldn’t replace main battle tanks.
It’s important to note that Uran-9 is not just a single vehicle. It’s an entire system comprised of the two robotic vehicles that can be used for reconnaissance and fire support, a truck to carry those robots, and a mobile command post. There’s no Western equivalent to the system, though the U.S. and other countries have been researching the possibilities of unmanned ground vehicles, Gladiator Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicle or Qinetiq’s Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, for decades.
Rosoboronexport, the manufacturer of the Uran-9, hopes to market the system on the domestic and international. “This is a fast-growing segment of the arms market, so Rosoboronexport will develop and implement a long-term marketing strategy for promoting such pieces of hardware, including as part of integrated security projects,” Boris Simakin, head of Rosoboronexport’s analysis and long-term planning department, told the National Interest.
Unmanned Minesweepers and Submarine Hunters will Patrol the Shores and Oceans Soon
Israeli defense company Elbit announced in February that it had created an unmanned warship dubbed the Seagull. The Seagull’s primary function is to find and neutralize mines in the waters off Israel’s coast. The ship handles every step of this process from start to finish, and even deploys its own underwater submarine drones to help it find submerged mines.
In January U.S.-based Textron Systems also announced it was moving into the building and outfitting phases of making its Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV) the standard unmanned surface vehicle (USV) for the US Navy’s Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS). Like the Seagull, this small USV’s main purpose would be to clear mines out of the way so larger warships could pass through.
Only a few months later, in April, DARPA unveiled the Sea Hunter, a prototype for a fully automated submarine hunter that could patrol the oceans for two or three months at a time without any crew or remote operators. “This is an inflection point,” Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Robert O. Work told Reuters in an interview. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship.” Work estimated ships like the Sea Hunter could see service in the western Pacific within five years.
The US Navy has also been experimenting with lighter combat craft. It conducted an exercise in late 2014 in which remote operators controlled 13 patrol boats at once from a single command console. Rear Admiral Matthew L. Klunder, then Chief of Naval Research, said at the time that he believed up to 20 or 30 small craft could be directed by a single operator. With developments such as these, and taking into consideration the rapid rate with which they’re occurring, it’s safe to predict that USVs will be playing almost as active a role in surveillance and combat operations as UAVs within a decade or two. And the Navy won’t be the only ones using “swarms” or small fleets controlled by a single operator.
Swarms and Drones Controlled Directly by the Operator’s Thoughts Are the Next Phases of Automated Warfare
A program currently under development with the U.S. Air Force would have fighter pilots controlling small fleets of nearby drone aircraft in combat situations. The unmanned craft could perform a variety of functions for the pilots, from surveillance and reconnaissance to weapons delivery against dangerous or difficult-to-approach targets. “We see unmanned vehicles being used for a much wider variety of missions,” Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley told Military.com. “Today they are primarily used for ISR, long duration missions where we want to collect information. In the future, they will be moving cargo and more manned-unmanned teaming where they are acting as extensions of a manned aircraft.”
Another project envisions swarms of small drones engaging targets. When the Air Force rolled out its 20-year flight plan for small, unmanned aerial systems earlier this year, it included a proposal for what it dubbed “swarming”. The swarms could be organized to attack a single major target or be spread out over a large area to engage multiple targets. While larger and more expensive weapons platforms like Predator drones can be taken down with a single hit, a swarm could suffer several losses but then regroup and still be effective, a capability the Air Force refers to as “self-healing”.
Colonel Brandon “BB” Baker, Chief of the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) capabilities division, said that swarming technology “changes the game” for future warfare. Lieutenant general Robert Otto, Deputy Chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, echoed this sentiment, saying that the 20-year flight plan was a “vision” for the future of air warfare. “We do believe that small, unmanned aerial systems will be the cornerstone of Air Force ISR as we look through the next 20 years”, Otto added.
If DARPA has any say in it, that future doesn’t just entail swarms of drones and vehicles of various shapes and sizes fighting on land, air, and sea, it also involves some of those craft being controlled by remote operators’ minds. DARPA and the U.S. Air Force awarded Arizona State University’s Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab grants totalling $860,000 in 2014 to develop the technology to allow operators to control vehicles with their minds. “The pilot wears what looks like a high-tech swimmer’s cap, equipped with 128 electrodes that detect brainwaves,” Steven Overly writes in a recent article for the Washington Post. “The electrodes identify where thoughts originate in the brain and determine the pilot’s intended commands, and then those commands are communicated to the robots via Bluetooth.”
Panagiotis Artemiadis, the director of the lab, says these types of technologies are the future of warfare, and that the self-healing nature of swarms in particular will give the forces using them substantial advantages. “Ten or 20 years from now, instead of having big expensive aircraft or drones, you can have hundreds or thousands of inexpensive ones you deploy in an area,” Artemiadis told the Post. “Even if you lose half of them, you can still achieve your goals.”
It’s quite possible that some of these technologies will fall by the wayside before they even come to fruition. Regardless, we are undeniably at a point where robotic and automated weapons systems are about to start playing a much larger role in global conflict. The thought of fewer soldiers dying in action is attractive, as is the theoretic possibility of advanced technology decreasing the numbers of civilian casualties. However, the prospect of operators controlling entire fleets of craft with their mind, or of swarms of armed drones pursuing multiple targets over large areas, also presents serious ethical questions. As does the fact that, as drones and automated weapons systems become more advanced and prevalent, developing nations will be at an even greater disadvantage when faced by threats from advanced militaries.