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Pentagon’s Robotic Soldiers: Reality or Fiction?

Colonel Satinder K. Saini was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • September 02, 2008

    Recent media reports indicate that the Pentagon is planning to replace 30 per cent of its soldiers with robots by 2020. The employment of robots by the armed forces includes all unmanned platforms used for military related tasks. The use of robots in warfare offers a number of distinct advantages. Such means can provide lethal fire power in a responsive manner on any designated target. Robotic soldiers also eliminate concerns about human casualties in war which is a major concern of western countries. They can also reduce the negative impact of human errors in war and are economical as well. The US has estimated through a study that the median cost of a soldier, including the extensive training requirement, is about USD 4 million, whereas robot soldiers cost only a tenth of that.

    While use of robotic soldiers by defence forces the world over is likely to increase in the coming years, their current employment is mostly limited to aerial vehicles and detection/neutralization of explosives on ground. The use of unmanned platforms has increased since 1960, mainly through exploitation of the air medium to support military reconnaissance needs. Yet, their potential capability has not been fully exploited, although the US Armed Forces have begun to use Predator UAVs as weapon systems.

    Many technological challenges remain to be overcome in order to use robots in actual combat situations being faced by foot soldiers in war zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The human ability to adapt to the ‘Fog of War’ will be difficult to match for the time being. Also, highly autonomous systems may increase the risk of friendly fire casualties and collateral damage. Therefore, technological innovation in the field of robotics cannot solve every issue in the short to medium term, thus making robotic transformation a long term process. Human intervention needs to be factored in for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the use of robots is likely to expand in the air force and navy rather than the army. Essentially, this stems from the fact that the navy and the air force are technologically more intensive and configured around fighting platforms, with the human element relatively less pronounced. The US Air Force envisions unmanned aircraft that can be launched from submarines, ships or runways. The US Navy sees robot crabs being used to scurry across beaches, defusing mines. In the army, robots are likely to be restricted to reconnaissance, logistic repetitive tasks and in combat situations wherein recognition of friend or foe is ruled out. One such operational scenario, frequently faced by the US forces in Iraq, is for building intervention to flush out terrorists where possibility of presence of hostages or innocent civilians inside the building can be negated. However, even if there is a remote probability of innocent lives being at stake inside the building, a military commander is unlikely to opt for assigning the mission to a robotic soldier.

    Even if technological challenges are surmounted, the idea of a killing system without direct human control raises many ethical and legal issues such as where to place the blame if a robot kills someone. A lethal robot with a certain degree of autonomy poses significant accountability problems. Having the ‘man in the loop’ is likely to remain at the heart of modern warfare until society and the military are assured that “intelligent” combat systems will not commit fratricide. Although the technological improvement would probably enable a machine to decide to launch weapons on its own, the risks implied by the target identification process and collateral damage possibility tend to demonstrate that there will have to be human involvement "to authorize the use of lethal force." Humans will remain the principal decision-makers in weapon delivery.

    The changing nature of conflict also suggests that asymmetric conflicts are more likely to occur than conventional wars. Military superiority and possession of high technology weapons and equipment play a more important role in conventional conflicts rather than in asymmetric ones. This is borne out by the not so impressive performance of the coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, while high tech weapon systems are necessary, the human element is of paramount importance and manpower skills and not technology is the key. The transition of the robots from the realm of science fiction to the actual battlefield wherein they replace foot soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan is still far away.