The Robot Infantry that Will Fight the Next War

Cybersecurity robot

Male robot by Bigstock.

It’s very easy, I think, for Americans to envision robots on the battlefield. Since 9/11, we’ve witnessed a robust evolution of war fighting technology in the U.S. military. Robots are an interesting development—perhaps even an exciting one—but they’re simply the next step in the long march of military supremacy. But if you’re on the other end of the American spear, whether peasant or hostile, then for you the futuristic might of the last superpower appears all at once in its terrifying glory.

There are excellent arguments for and against such weapons of war. But regardless of the words of ethicists or activists, robots are the inevitable reality of combat zones in the near future. Indeed, at Ft. Benning, technology companies were invited to demonstrate their latest refinements to the “unmanned ground systems” that make up robotic warfare. According to Tollie Strode Jr., senior project officer of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence Battle Lab where tests were conducted, “I think the ability for a robot to acquire and assess a target and ID it as a threat and fire is probably five or 10 years out.” (Here is one such demonstration of a robot acquiring and destroying targets with live fire on a pop-up range.)

 LETHAL ROBOTICS – COMING TO A BATTLEFIELD SOON

Lt. Col. Willie Smith, the chief of the unmanned ground systems branch of the Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate, reportedly hopes to see such vehicles deployed in five years’ time. “We were pleased with what we saw,” he said of the demonstration that day, which included robots from Northrop Grumman, QinetiQ, iRobot Corp, and HDT Robotics. “We think the technology and the capability to employ lethal robotics on the battlefield is slowly coming to fruition. We think eventually we’ll be able to deploy lethal robotics with dismounted troops, and they’ll one day be considered part of the team.”

The operative phrase, perhaps, is “part of the team.” Researchers who’ve interviewed soldiers currently using robots as part of their jobs in Afghanistan (explosive ordnance disposal specialists, primarily) have discovered an interesting trend: soldiers empathize with and have affection for their robot partners. According to Dr. Julie Carpenter of the University of Washington, who conducted the interviews with service-members, “They were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet… They would say they were angry when a robot became disabled because it is an important tool, but then they would add ‘poor little guy,’ or they’d say they had a funeral for it.” (On Reddit, one veteran of Iraq related a story in which an EOD robot dubbed “Boomer” was destroyed in Taji. Reportedly, the robot’s unit awarded it an honorary Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and gave it a full burial detail with a 21-gun salute.)

Are such feelings for increasingly lifelike machines to become more or less prevalent in the years to come? Consider the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), developed to walk with units on patrol and carry up to 400-lbs. of equipment.

There’s something endearing about this machine, which conjures the grace of some loping animal in the wild. How many patrols will infantrymen make with the lifelike, metallic beast before its destruction in combat takes an emotional toll on its comrades in arms? After all, as Dr. Carpenter’s research suggests, such a response is already occurring. Before answering the question, check out the 40-second-mark of this astonishing video, where the robot breaks into a gallop. “How many” and “when” hardly seem up to par; the real question is “to what extent” will soldiers grieve a robot’s loss?


The LS3 was developed under the aegis of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is charged with developing next-generation technologies for the Department of Defense. (If you’re reading this, you’re using the heir to its most famous creation—Arpanet, which laid the groundwork for the Internet.) In 2010, the agency announced Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM), a four-year program to develop autonomous robots to be used in battlefield conditions. (L3P is only semi-autonomous. Likewise, while the lethal robots tested at Ft. Benning last month are capable of acquiring targets, they must first ask for permission from humans before they can fire.) The progress thus far in ARM’s independently “thinking” robots is astonishing, as demonstrated by footage from last year of a robot performing sophisticated tasks with great delicacy.

When these three technologies—dexterous autonomy, animal-like mobility with patrol integration, and target acquisition for the lethal application of force—are brought together in a single machine (a Terminator robot, if you will), its arguable that the battlefield equation will be altered in a way not seen since the Davy Crockett battlefield nuke. The more of these robots we build, the more effective they operate, and the less reliant we become on biological ground forces, how long before the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment (Android) is leading the charge? How long before it’s a robot that picks up a weapon and says, “Follow me!” How long before its flesh-and-bone comrades are roused to follow?

David Brown is a regular contributor to Clearance Jobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at http://dwb.io.