On Military Robots

Patrick Cheetham

The Department of Defense is shrinking funding to military robots while robots are becoming more capable and ubiquitous every day. The US needs to invest in developing these technologies and we should look towards the future in ways that keep us superior and counter potential uses against our own systems.

Robots afford considerable advantages in warfare by extending military reach and power projection. They also change the risk-benefit calculation for successful operations. Generally, a robot can be defined as a machine that has some degree of autonomy and the ability to sense, perceive, and act in or on its environment. Yet, this definition and basic understanding of robots does not adequately describe the revolution occurring in robotic technologies that are truly transforming industries and national security as we know it.

DoD funding in recent years has been sluggish, while the utility of military robots has increased. From a high in 2011 of $6.6 billion, the proposed 2014 budget for unmanned systems was just about $4.1 billion. This significant decrease is counterintuitive to the increasing capabilities that robotics provide for DoD. The most newsworthy robots are unmanned aerial vehicles, which grab headlines for their ability to loiter, surveil, and kill targets (for example, they are being used in the current campaign against ISIL). Robots are not just doing dull, dangerous, or dirty tasks; they are dominating the air and quickly becoming a force multiplier. On the ground or in the maritime environment, they inspect and disarm IEDs, carry supplies, enable communications, and use EW to jam and spoof other machines. Robots with stronger artificial intelligence, medical and surgical capabilities, and the ability to incapacitate high value targets could provide even more function for the warfighter in the future.

The ubiquity of robotic technologies in commercial, civil, and national security sectors challenges the US held monopoly on military specific robots. It is estimated that at least 75 to 87 countries are investing in military unmanned systems. Military investment in the Asian region alone will grow by 67% to 2018, totaling almost $2.4 billion per year. A low barrier to entry for makers, nation states, and terrorists is possible because of decreasing costs of enabling technologies. Robert Work and Shawn Brimley point out that advanced computing, big data, autonomy, artificial intelligence, miniaturization, and small high-density power systems in the consumer and service industries advance the development of military robots. A common robotic operating system, cheaper hardware, and 3D printing also contribute to accessibility. Widespread knowledge and availability have given nefarious actors the ability to use machines. For example, the terrorist group Hezbollah has successfully fielded drones and plots using UAVs strapped with bombs. Most strikingly, China has “developed” UAVs with uncanny resemblance to the US-made MQ-9 Reaper.

Technology superiority is a cornerstone of US national security strategy but is being challenged in the field of robotics by decreased budgets and technological diffusion. DoD has decreased investments in robots even though the costs and limits of manned systems make unmanned systems a wise acquisition decision. Robots can replace tasks and enhance our own superiority with an optimum balance between humans and machines. Smartly investing in military robot systems of the future will help the US maintain the technical edge it needs.

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