No man’s land10 July 2020
Armoured vehicles have remained vital assets for every self-respecting army for over a century. Amid growing interest in land-based drones, however, the days of the tank crew seem numbered. Andrea Valentino speaks to Captain J Evan Inglett at the US Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and Lieutenant Colonel Sten Allik of the Estonian Defence Forces about how unmanned robots are transforming the battlefield, and what that means for the human soldiers left behind.
In September 1916, men on both sides of the trenches were confronted by something extraordinary. As they trundled out towards the German positions, one British soldier compared the new machines at his flank to “little forts, running along on their bellies”. Most of these moving castles broke down, but the few that kept going still had a remarkable impact. As they reached the enemy dugouts, the Germans turned tail and fled – even if the arrival of tanks on the battlefield would ultimately contribute less to the defeat of the Kaiser than blockades and revolution.
From their humble beginnings in the First World War, of course, tanks have become as indispensible to modern armies as cavalry was to their pre-modern forerunners, sweeping the field everywhere from the beaches of Normandy to the Golan Heights. Yet over recent decades, defence planners have begun looking towards a world without armoured vehicles, or at least one where tanks are supplemented by even more extraordinary bits of military kit.
For if these mechanical behemoths were the heavy cavalry of the 20th century, unmanned robots might well be their replacement in the 21st. Not that the transformation will be straightforward. To succeed, commanders are having to fundamentally reconfigure how they deploy armoured assets, and become comfortable mixing remote control with totally autonomous technology. Get the balance right, though, and armies might soon be able to protect themselves – and hurt the enemy – in ways unthinkable to their ancestors on the Somme.
Use in Iraq and Afghanistan
To understand the modern mania for autonomous armour among defence planners, we must first consider a far less glamorous moment in 21st-century warfare – namely, the Iraq War and its infamous improvised explosive devices (IEDs). By the end of March 2007, 84 of the bombs were being discovered or detonated every single day. By the end of May, they were killing almost 90 foreign soldiers every month. Simple explosives they may have been, but they would, in time, become the most effective enemy of US and coalition forces across their long occupation of Iraq. Ironically enough, explains Captain J Evan Inglett of the US Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, it would be these same unseen killers that ultimately explain the rise of robots on the contemporary battlefield.
“Robots have been integrated into the infantry since the early 2000s and were used extensively in Iraq,” says Inglett, in charge of ground combat elements for the science and technology division at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. “The PackBot is likely the most well-known. It was a teleoperated tracked robot used by explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams to investigate, and render safe, IEDs.” A few years on from the slaughters of 2007, and machines like PackBot were doing their jobs ably: by 2010 Iraqi insurgents needed 20 IEDs to cause a casualty among their American foes, up from just five a few years earlier.
Even so, you get the sense that if the modern ground robot was birthed amid the dust and death of post-Baathist Iraq, more sophisticated uses lagged behind. Perhaps the biggest problem was transmission. Back in the 2000s, wireless systems, especially the bandwidth that operators rely on to control machines remotely, were still in their infancy. This meant that bigger machines often reacted too slowly or failed to react at all – hardly ideal in a lawnmower, let alone a battlefield robot. As one US military researcher put it in 2009, unmanned systems back then still didn’t have “enough bandwidth to pass all that data around that you need to [have, or enough] communications in place for adequate control and feedback.”
But if the technology spluttered, its potential was no less enormous for it. Apart from the perennial issue of logistics – safely getting weapons or food to soldiers who need them – the Iraq experience demonstrated, with brutal clarity, the need for putting metal shields in front of flesh-and-blood soldiers. Nor was this true merely when it came to those murderous IEDs. Inglett and his marines are a case in point. Because they operate in intense conditions, on both land and sea, there was – and is – huge potential for what he calls “a family of highly-integrated robotic systems” to take the load off individual soldiers, and sharpen their lethality even miles from the enemy.
The Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicle (EMAV) is a case in point. Developed by Inglett and his colleagues at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, it has a number of different modules, encompassing everything from remote weapons stations to laser designators and breaching assets – perfect for marines who might be fighting in an Iraqi town one year and on an Afghan mountain peak the next. At the same time, Inglett plans to add what he calls “aerial loitering munitions” to the EMAV. That phrasing is deceptively pedestrian: these ‘munitions’ are actually kamikaze drones, fired remotely into the sky before nose diving down towards the enemy.
In the summer of 1994, after almost exactly 50 years of occupation, the last Russian troops left Estonia. Though the Soviet Union had collapsed three years earlier, it took some time for the newly-democratic government in Tallinn to negotiate their departure with President Yeltsin. And when the last brigade of T-72s sailed away on a battleship at the end of August, Estonia was finally empty of troops – whether Soviet, Russian or any other kind.
As such, Estonia had to build up its military capabilities completely from nothing, with barely 20 years of independence in 1,000 as practice. A daunting task, but one that Lieutenant Colonel Sten Allik says helped his country in the end. “The Estonian defence forces started in the 1990s completely from zero,” says Allik, one of the country’s leading military experts on unmanned vehicles. “We didn’t have any heritage of Soviet equipment at all, either guns or platforms. That kind of tabula rasa probably did provide us with the opportunity to rethink everything in a fresh way.”
It is easy to see what he means. Able to develop new technologies holistically and from scratch, and cooperating with a lively private sector, the Estonian military has become one of the most advanced on earth. And as Allik explains what his country’s robotic platforms can do, it becomes clear that they’re aimed at precisely the challenges that have dogged troops for so long. Known as the Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System (THeMIS), it’s striking to what extent Estonian robots have been designed with versatility in mind. One version, for instance, transports water, food and ammunition for troops, making it particularly useful in urban environments where heavier, manned vehicles might get bogged down. Another variant has more offensive capabilities. Shaped more or less like a regular tank but barely half the height, and armed with a rotating .50 calibre machine gun, it can hit targets over a mile away.
Other systems are designed for communications. With the Russian threat still ominously close by, Estonia has built a system of sensors along its eastern border. Apart from being small enough to hide in bushes – making them harder to destroy in the heat of battle – they also automatically alert border guards if they sense invaders.
Lieutenant Colonel Sten Allik
For his part, Allik seems particularly excited about a CASEVAC machine that can act like an unmanned stretcher, even negotiating obstacles autonomously. It comes as no surprise that he believes its ability to “impact combat capability is remarkable”.
It should be noted, of course, that Estonia is far from alone when it comes to its interest in unmanned land vehicles.. And as the nation that spends more on defence than the next ten combined, it is also unsurprising that the US is investing in EMAV and other goodies. But with bandwidth increasing by 50% each year, and helpful partnerships with civilian companies now available to all but the weakest economies, leading military powers from Turkey to the UK are all working with commercial partners to build their own unmanned systems too.
Death from above
Whatever their capabilities, it’s clear that all these systems have one overriding goal: reducing the burden on individual soldiers and their officers. But as so often in military planning, things don’t always go to plan. To explain what he means, Allik borrows from his experience working with other Nato member nations. After experimenting with novel forms of mechanisation, brigades from two different armies had two completely different outcomes. One managed to make cuts – but the other, between fixing technical snafus and worrying about oversight, ended up deploying more personnel.
This focus on personnel is no accident. From automated machine guns to robot stretchers, unmanned systems raise a number of difficult questions for troops and their commanders, and not only when it comes to cutting unit sizes. Unsurprisingly, one of the most ethically fraught involves systems that can extinguish lives. Put another way, might we ever reach a time when those machine gun robots are let loose to shoot at the enemy unsupervised?
Allik thinks not. He argues that as the technology develops, armies will have to balance remotecontrolled systems with fully automated ones – but that the trigger will never be pulled by a bunch of ones and zeros. Other soldiers seem to agree, with Lieutenant General Ludwig Leinhos, head of Germany's Cyber and Information Space Command, announcing in February 2018 that he had a “very clear position” to not acquire killer robots anytime soon.
Even so, both Inglett and Allik are happy to predict vast changes in how armies go to war. For his part, Inglett suggests that as the technology matures, robots will be used ever more frequently to “conduct dangerous, dirty and dull missions to protect the warfighter and support operating concepts”. Allik agrees, adding that he expects troops themselves to be transformed by the experience of fighting alongside quasi-intelligent machines.
“From a psychological perspective, there used to be a fear of mines,” explains the Estonian colonel. “We still see that with IEDs. I think that, in the future, there will be a similar fear of unmanned systems. They can be everywhere – in the air, on the ground, underwater. Our ability to recognise and identify them is very limited. And if you do see them, it might be too late.”
A frightening prospect, certainly, but not an insurmountable one. Just 25 years after their fathers were faced with those early hulks in the UK army, the Germans had not only mastered tank warfare but made it their own from Belgium to the Russian steppe. In other words, as terrifying as the robotic future of conflict might seem now, we should never discount the ability of regular troops to adapt – at least until their countries come up with even more terrifying methods of slaughter.