Military Robots Are Making A Mark on the Armed Forces, But Can They Become a Threat?
Thu, February 2, 2023

Military Robots Are Making A Mark on the Armed Forces, But Can They Become a Threat?

For decades now, armed forces all over the world have been using autonomous military systems to perform various combat roles from search and rescue to logistics support / Photo by: 1st Class Shannon Renfroe via Wikimedia Commons


For decades now, armed forces all over the world have been using autonomous military systems to perform various combat roles from search and rescue to logistics support, stated Christopher McFadden of engineering news website Interesting Engineering. Autonomous military systems can be traced as far back as the First World War. Of course, they will play a more critical role in the battlefields of tomorrow, but many of them are used for non-lethal activities.

 Some believe we will see fully automated lethal autonomous systems in the future, thereby rendering human soldiers obsolete. However, we should remember that many military vehicles with combat capabilities are prevented from being fully autonomous to ensure there is human input.


A Brief History of Military Robots/Autonomous Military Systems

Autonomous systems for the military are also known as autonomous robots or remote-controlled drones. They were used during World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. In the first world war, various inventors designed “small, remote-controlled and tracked, disposable expensive devices.” One of which was the French Crocodile Schneider Torpille Terrestre that could deliver a 40-kilogram explosive charge. Another similar device was patented by Elmer Wickershaw, an American inventor, in 1918. He called it Wickersham Land Torpedo, but it was not used.

In the 1930s, Adolphe Kegresse developed a similar device, which was used as a basis for Germany’s Goliath drone of WWII. The Goliath was a deadly, remote-controlled vehicle that looked like a baby tank, carrying a 60 kilogram to 100-kilogram payload of high explosives. The Goliath’s explosives were used for demolition activities and killing full-size, remotely controlled tanks. 

Some UAVs were developed during WWI, which were catapulted into the air and flown by radio. The US Army also built aerial torpedoes called the Kettering Bug, but these never saw actual service. In the 1930s and 40s, the Soviet Army built a full-size, remote-controlled tank called the Teletank, which was involved during the Winter War with Finland. These tanks were controlled by radio and used to minimize combat risks to troops.

In 2005, military robot usage rose from 150 to 5,000 in the same year. Many of these robots were used to disarm more than 1,000 roadside bombs in Iraq. The US Army bought 7,000 of these military robots in 2013, 750 of them were destroyed in action. In the near future, military autonomous systems are projected to grow in number and roles as armies continue to develop and invest in this technology.

In 2005, military robot usage rose from 150 to 5,000 in the same year. Many of these robots were used to disarm more than 1,000 roadside bombs in Iraq / Photo by: Kevin L. Moses Sr. via Wikimedia Commons


Current Statistics on Military Robotics

The global military robotics market was estimated to be at $1,734.00 million in 2018 and projected to reach $53,934.60 million by 2027 at a CAGR of 13.5% over the forecast period 2019 to 2027, as revealed by Absolute Markets Insights via press release distribution website PR Newswire. This is due to the evolution and integration of AI technology.

On the basis of applications, metal/mine detection has a major market share of 32.8% in 2018 and is forecasted to remain at a dominant position over the forecast period at a CAGR of 13.9%. With regard to end users, the armed forces segment is set to witness the highest CAGR over the forecast period due to benefits offered by robots deployed in extreme and hazardous environments.

The Partnership Between Robots and the Military

Researchers are trying to make robots more autonomous as well as fostering better collaboration between machines and soldiers, noted Ray Linsenmayer of robotics news platform Robotics Business Review. Future military robots will require “intelligence, perception and robustness,” Dr. Philip Perconti, director of the CCDC (Combat Capabilities Development Command).  

The military robots of the future will require less soldier oversight, giving fighters an advantage. Kevin McEnery, deputy director of the Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, stated that it takes two soldiers to control a robot. Researchers are incorporating AI and machine learning capabilities because it is not possible to hard cord each and every scenario they might face, Percanti explained.

Lt. Col. Christopher Lowrance, assistant professor and deputy director of the electrical engineering program at West Point, said robots need to be as autonomous as possible because the armed forces can’t depend on networks in the field to push data. Lt. Col. Jay Wisham, an RCTA program manager, added that a minimum threshold could be advantageous to the warfighter and save lives. “For a team of 10 to 15 soldiers on a platform, the data a robot provides can be a matter of life and death,” he said.

Even if the robot isn’t connected to the network and unable to download complete battlefield information, the information that the robot gives to the team can be beneficial. Lowrance said it all comes down to soldiers interacting with the machines early on, allowing them to trust its actions, know its limits, and find out if there’s something wrong.

Military robots also need to be robust enough to function in highly unstructured environments, including places where enemies might try to destroy them. Wisham said he wants them to have the ability to “decide when, where, and on what terms to engage the enemy.”


Military Robots Are an Existential Threat

 Killer robots are now perceived as one of the planet’s top existential threats, Mary Wareham wrote on USA Today, a news website that delivers current local and national news. At the United Nations General Assembly, an “Alliance for Multilateralism,” last September, France and Germany, as well as dozens of foreign ministers cited killer robots as one of six “politically relevant” issues that require an “urgent multilateral response.”

 Leading AI experts, roboticists, scientists, and technology workers at Google and other firms demanded regulation. Last fall, Liz O'Sullivan of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control warned at a UN event that algorithms fed by data that reflect various social biases could cause civilians with certain profiles to be targeted disproportionately. Military robots will also be susceptible to hacking and attacks. The machines can be tricked “in ways no human would ever be fooled” if minor modifications are made to data inputs.

Helen Buyniski of a Russian English-language news channel shared that autonomous killer robots can dehumanize war since they can select and kill their own targets using AI. If that happens, the armed forces will be filled with soldiers that won’t ask questions or hesitate to shoot anyone. Such pitfalls are obvious, said Buyniski. If AI can’t be trained to differentiate between sarcasm and normal speech, how can it distinguish between a civilian and soldier or between friend and foe?

Military robots have been used for quite some time now. These robots can be used to establish better collaboration between machines and soldiers, giving armed forces a competitive advantage. However, military robots can be a threat especially if they fail to distinguish between civilians and soldiers. If robots did replace human soldiers, are we already seeing the inevitable downfall of human morality and society?