Tech & Science

How Robot Dogs Are Changing the Face of Warfare

AlphaDog Ground Drone
In the Magazine
The human-like yet dispensable ground drone may change the very nature of warfare. Decision-makers won't face as many risks. Lance Cpl. M. L. Meier

They are the future of war and no army is complete without them. Now Israel has become the latest country to deploy unmanned ground vehicles. Loyal Partner is an UGV operated by soldiers at a remote location a ground drone, in layman speak, which already has many sister machines. 
Defence giant Oshkosh has developed self-driving technology that allows military vehicles to see better than humans in murky combat conditions. They?re now being tested by the United States Marine Corps. 
Together with the US Army, the Marine Corps recently conducted two successful tests on self-driving technology developed by Lockheed Martin, another leading defence contractor. Lockheed Martin has also developed a self-driving vehicle, as have Mesa Robotics and QinetiQ North America. All were tested by the US Army last year. And AlphaDog (LS3), an animal-like four-legged robot developed by the military Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and the defence company Boston Dynamics, can carry 181kg of equipment and walk for 32km.
The British Army, meanwhile, recently purchased 60 Terriers, an armoured digging vehicle designed to breach enemy obstacles and excavate ditches and trenches. Though typically manned, the Terrier can also be operated remotely. 
UGVs provide significant advantages on the battlefield, a spokesperson for Britain?s Ministry of Defence says. They provide freedom of manoeuvre and protection for our personnel from explosive devices on the ground through specialist search and clearance functions.
Next year Israel will add a second UGV, the Border Protector, which replaces its older sibling, the Guardium. Both patrol the Gaza border, detecting bombs and locating gunfire. The UGVs could define Israel?s capabilities in the near future, the Israeli Defence Forces announced.
Welcome to a new era of warfare. UAVs [drones] have had a revolutionary effect on air warfare and counterterrorism, and UGVs can have the same effect on ground warfare, predicts Ben Barry, a former brigadier in the British Army. Britain has long used UGVs such as Wheelbarrow and Panama for bomb disposal, and for international forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan similar devices have become an indispensable tool. According to a recent report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, the United States alone has several thousands of ground drones.
But the ground drones now being introduced play in a different league. While AlphaDog walks, the vehicles can zip around warzones at speeds of up to 64 kph, supplying soldiers with food and ammunition while at the same time disabling enemy bombs. 
In a recent trial, Oshkosh's technology allowed half the vehicles in a US Marine Corps convoy to complete a trial in rugged terrain without a driver, while vehicles fitted with the Lockheed Martin system completed the same task in a US army test. Lieutenant Colonel Arnald Thomas, at the US Combined Arms Support Command Science and Technology Division, points out that UGVs ?avoid human endurance constraints,? which means they can operate around the clock, remotely guided by soldiers, while a human driver needs sleep in order to do his job.
The lowly supply convoy belongs to an army's most crucial operations. Even for a commander with superior combat forces, the game is over without a steady stream of food and ammunition. Yet supply convoys are also extremely exposed, travelling as they do in processions of several vehicles. As a result, Afghan and Iraqi insurgents target supply convoys with particular zest. 
Recently militants in the Pakistani city of Peshawar attacked a Nato supply convoy travelling to Afghanistan, killing two drivers. Last year, six soldiers were killed in a similar attack in Pakistan?s Khyber tribal region. In 2012, 17 soldiers were killed in Kabul. Jessica Lynch, the Iraq war?s perhaps best-known prisoner of war, was captured after an Iraqi attack on a US supply convoy.
The help of ground drones in supply convoys will allow commanders to assign supply convoy soldiers to combat tasks. Autonomy-enabled systems are, in essence, force multipliers that allow us to respond effectively to a broad range of missions and changing threats with appropriate, flexible and responsive capabilities,? explains Dr Paul Rogers, Director of the US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Centre (Tardec), which is developing the new UGV with Lockheed Martin. 
Armies will, in other words, be able to fight wars with fewer soldiers. That means fewer body bags returning home. ?One of the big drivers behind this development is the desire to reduce casualties,? explains Barry, now Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. As far as John Urias, president of Oshkosh and a former Major General in the US Army, is concerned, ground drones are any commander?s godsend:  ?One of the most traumatic experiences a commander goes through is losing soldiers? lives,? he notes. ?But you can always replace a vehicle.? 
Taking the soldiers out of harm?s way makes eminent sense, and today?s advanced software and cheap computing makes the goal feasible. At the current rate of development, American -vehicle-size ground drones may soon join Loyal Partner and Terrier in real-life operations. And in a world with a growing number of insurgency-type conflicts, featuring plenty of suicide attacks and roadside bombs (IEDs), simply sending lorries to deliver supplies on their own is a highly attractive solution. All the new warrior requires is access to energy and radio waves.
But the versatile, human-like yet dispensable ground drone may also change the very nature of warfare. 
?Traditionally, the number of potential casualties has been a limiting factor in gaining public support for military action,? notes John Kaag, an associate professor of philosophy and global studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of the forthcoming Drone Warfare. ?UGVs perform many of the functions ground troops have performed until now. With UGVs available, decision-makers don?t face as many risks when going to war.?
Deploying ground drones could also cause confusion about whether a military conflict is under way: does the arrival of AlphaDog or Loyal Partner constitute an act of war? 
The prospect of UGVs facing off against humans also raises the question of when it?s fair to use UGVs. A UGV-equipped army fighting insurgents is hardly a proportional battle, since the insurgents have to square off against machines that feel no pain. But once a country has ground drones, the public will expect that they, rather than soldiers, be used. Insurgent groups, predicts Barry, will then try to develop their own ground drones.
The next step, explains Oshkosh?s Chief Unmanned Systems Engineer, John Beck, is to finetune the technology to the point that the enemy can?t detect whether a vehicle has a driver or not. But the development doesn?t stop there. At a US Army test last year, ground drones approached selected targets, fired at them, and returned. 
?We are,? Kaag admits, ?many years from a military mission in which UGVs approach what experts call ?lethal autonomy?, but that means that it?s precisely the right time to broach the question: who is responsible when a human commander gives an order to a droid that in turn carries out a lethal action? That time is coming, and faster than we think.

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