Soldier-Controlled Autonomous Robots Call for Fires in Test, Attack Targets

Kris Osborn

photo: Textron Systems Ripsaw M5 Robotic Combat Vehicle

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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) Armed Army robot vehicles conducted reconnaissance, called for indirect fire and then, when directed by human decision makers, attacked and destroyed enemy targets in a recent experiment designed to assess the technical maturity and readiness of autonomous ground drones.

“We had four robot vehicles conduct a tactical mission while humans were safe in defilade. We built four robots that are refurbished M113 tracked vehicles and we’ve taken two Bradleys -- gutted them -- and turned them into two control vehicles with all kinds of sensors on them,” Jeff Langhout, Director, Ground Vehicle Systems Center, told reporters in October at the Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium, Washington, D.C.

Langhout explained that the robots engaged in “direct fire” missions when directed by human decision-makers, per existing doctrine requiring a human to be “in the loop” when it comes to using lethal force for attack.

It’s the cutting edge of manned-unmanned teaming, human-machine interface coordinating human decision makers with robots increasingly able to perform autonomous functions. The Army doctrinal parameters are significant here, because the technological ability of a robot to surveil, track, target and destroy a target without human intervention -- is basically here. However, for ethical and tactical reasons, DoD maintains its clear position that humans must make decisions regarding the use of lethal force, despite advances in algorithms enabling greater autonomy. The doctrinal stance is also grounded in a recognition that even the most advanced computer algorithms are not sufficient to replace the problem-solving, decision-making abilities of human cognition. There is concern, however, that potential adversaries will not adhere to similar doctrine.

These questions figure prominently as the Army leverages the best available technology and makes rapid progress toward its ultimate goal of fielding a fleet of unmanned vehicles operating as “wing-men” for manned attack vehicles.

“I truly believe as we fight in the future robots are going to be involved,” Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director Next Generation Ground Vehicle Cross Functional Team, told reporters.

The concept is clear -- enable human soldier decision makers operating in a command and control capacity to receive organized, fused and integrated combat data in real time from robots. Unmanned vehicles could carry ammunition, cross bridges into enemy fire, perform forward recon missions to test enemy defenses, coordinate with air attack assets and -- when directed by human authorities -- destroy enemy targets with mounted weapons. Not only will these kinds of technical steps expand attack options and combat lethality while better protecting soldiers from enemy fire, but they will further disperse or disaggregate advancing forces, bringing additional tactical advantages. The robots could also support dismounted infantry in some cases by traversing rigorous terrain, bringing armored support to advancing ground units.

All of this is part of the Army’s fast moving Robotic Combat Vehicle program, a key element of its Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) program intended to provide the service with a new generation of armored warfare ground vehicles.

The Army seeks a light, medium and heavy fleet of Robotic Combat Vehicle to support infantry and armored units on the move. The robots are being engineered to operate in tandem with the now-developing OMFV Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (Bradley replacement) effort.

An OMFV Congressional Research Service report, citing an Army Robotic Combat Vehicle Campaign plan - says the service requires the RCV - Light to be “less than 10 tons, with a single vehicle capable of being transported by rotary wing assets. It should be able to accommodate an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) or a recoilless weapon.” RCV-Medium, by extension, can be as heavy as 20-tons and must travel on a C-130 armed with sensors and an ability to fire ATGMs and a medium cannon. Finally, the RCV-Heavy must be a “non-expendable” armed robotic platform transportable by a C-17 and have an ability to destroy enemy tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. While these vehicles can be remotely tele-operated, in the future a single operator will potentially be able to control a small fleet of robotic vehicles using AI.

The RCV acquisition effort, led by Army Futures Command’s NGCV Cross Functional Team, is on a fast track. The Army is now engaged with industry competitors who have submitted white papers and plans to move the acquisition process forward in decided increments in coming years.

The four robots cited by Langhout are now with Army Test and Evaluation Command preparing for safety release before being delivered to Colorado next Spring for further experiments.

“We want to take what we think the requirement is, experiment with it and then see what soldiers think of it,” Langhout said.

By 2023, Coffman explained, the Army expects to have a refined sense of what kind of light, medium and heavy robot mix it will need for the force. Concurrently the service is planning a phased expansion of the scope of robot integration to include a particular growth trajectory moving from platoon-size operations to company-sized and ultimately to brigade-sized units.

By next March, the Army plans to select one vendor to build four Light RCVs and one vendor to build four Medium RCVs, each with a year to deliver the vehicles.

“The three different weight classes are payload agnostic so they can have a sensor on them or carry weapons. By 2023 we will make a decision on how to proceed with the robots. Do we search our Light Variants? Mediums? Heavies? Or all three? We will decide based on what we learn from the experiments we conduct,” Coffman said.

Army technology developers routinely discuss the advantages of autonomy in terms of “easing the cognitive burden” upon soldiers by performing organizational and procedural functions to allow soldiers to better focus upon the complex problem solving required by combat.

“We want to enable soldiers to spend more time focused upon how to fight, as opposed to how you want to control vehicles,” Coffman said.

Advanced computer algorithms can gather, organize, analyze and transmit vast, seemingly limitless amounts of information in seconds - they can organize and present crucial combat-sensitive information in seconds. At the same time, there are still many variables or subjective nuances best left to human decision-making.

Autonomous navigation is complex, especially on the ground where objects need to maneuver in relation to other moving objects, terrain and fast-changing combat dynamics. There are naturally fewer obstacles in the sky impeding aerial autonomous flight.

Using advanced computer-enabled autonomy, much of it empowered by AI, is increasingly critical to the Army’s ongoing work to expand and harden its multi-layered tactical combat network.

“This is extremely complicated business with huge autonomy challenges. One of the greatest challenges we are going to have is the network. When you are on the ground and you have robots talking to other robots talking to ground vehicles, you may go behind a rock, down a hill, into a gully or around the corner of a building,” Coffman explained.


Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Be very careful to assign R&M by weight category. Why not system cost? Why not threat exposure? If you have to have an active emitter, either as an air defense radar or a drone command vehicle, would it not make sense that it be the only system which a very lightweight and thus very agile and also cheap to replace, vehicle carried?

C4ISR means both spectrum dominance and crypto security within a given bandpipe. You can save yourself endless headaches by using staged relays of 'squirt data over there, bounce it off the snooker cushion rebro drone back over here and fire straight down, to the vehicle which a third drone orbits or from which a mast is erected'. But to make this work requires a Ku/M/W band MMW for all weather, tight beam and wide bandwith. With a backup laser radar equivalent for CAVU.

We should have some degree of this, with the technology base inherent to Longbow and Brimstone. But if we don't, nothing else matters because, particularly in the Urban environment, anything which a ground team can send can be multi-path intercepted, mimicked and spoofed by a hostile sender.

And there are multiple situations where you don't want to be able to see the UGCV from where you are. Since 'if the enemy is in range' (of the robot), so may well be you.

Conversely, if the robot can be stolen, do you want it equipped with a 20mm RH-20/2 or RH30/2 cannon? This can be a useful weapon for limited overpen on structures targets. But it is also quite capable of killing an M113 or M2 Bradley. And does very little to aid infantry sweeping rooftops and windows of insurgent threats, which an FN-MAG or Mk.19 could not also achieve. And these are weapons which, even if lost, cannot threaten the manned force.

Economically, I would also suggest that the true utility of the robotic system is it's ability to do a superman-enters-phonebooth conversion, which allows vehicle configured for COIN/LIC as a presence mission, to drop the infantry weapon turret and adopt something decidedly heavier as an autocannon plus ATGW, for the tank hunter role. Saving dollars by buying universal chassis in turn allows you to make good choices on a followon manned NGCV rather than having to do what they did with the JSF and UDS under a 'going to war in SWA, cannot afford both' condition. By which the manned platform will always win, due to the manned command bias (soldiers follow warrior leaders, robots follow instruction sets) and the known-quantity lack of risk.

If you do select a manned/unmanned system mix, understand that you are not just buying another Little Crappy Ship equivalent wherein you have 'modular ability' but no mission modules. An ATGW based on Javelin or MMP or Spike is always going to be held back by man portability, acoustic blast and apparent mission role as a short range, lofting, high cost system.

Is this what you want to be hunting enemy tanks with as part of a screening robotic force? Or do you want something closer to LOSAT or CKEM? With the latter, you are commadn guided, without an expensive IRFPA. And your hypervelocity round is both limited in it's command guidance requirement for updating (short TOF) and able to tackle thick hided, numerous and APS protected threats which would otherwise make short work of an ATGW based on a subsonic weapon with only ~2km of range.

You must also create a full throughput synergy of systems approach. A minitank which doesn't gain in CS/CSS mission:tail ratios is just another addition to an already bloated system. A tankette which can resupply, mission convert or simply open the way towards system of systems synergies (fuel cell/hybrid systems as electric tank switchable loads) at MINIMUM manning footprint is worth it's weight because you are condensing the support vehicles as force protection and ton:mile commitments to the total force contributed logistics.

This means you need to be able to design a system which can pull an ERA+APS blanket with a single crane or forklift mount on the same chassis. Without a dozen men grunting to regenerate a combat damaged or depleted vehicle. Because, where there used to be a 3-4 man crew to do basic vehicle maintenance, now there is a 10 man plus two HEMTT requirement to haul tools and spares. And so you must service more within a pit crew system which does as much as possible through automation within the platoon. Even that's just refuelign and rearming in a dangerous, forward, area.

Bring an independent, multiservice, tactics community online, quickly. The Air Force does this, with every new type, using 'schoolhouse' specific bases whose job is to specifically generate playbooks which in turn source experts from an FWS level primary doctrinal integration source, with access to Red/Green flags.

You must do the same. Can you go interpositional with or without a manned team lead if the option of airborne MITL is still there to secure team security? If you detach elements in cavalry roles, to screen or deep attack, what does your main force have to do to draw the exposure, enpassant? If you are a robotic force, how does this effect weapons employment on things like lasers? Does your Iron Sight vehicle DAS show more or less hardening against optical threats? Do you want to carry a decoy library or other radio-electronic combat aid so that you can further fragment the team to EMULATE a threat which is not there? How do you facilitate recovery of damaged or depleted units with rotary wing systes at minimum exposure time for small helicopter crews? Sling, Drive-On, Single Point Hook Recovery?

There are enough drone independent roles, that manned presence as close integration in combat forces is not required to proof the concept. But you must make them internally stable so that they can plug'n'play without being a burden to other forces they support, disaggregatively or otherwise.

This means designing around roles which are low integration stress but which have high risk/high payoff conditions that a manned unit commander will be grateful to roll off the back of his unit TTPs as a mission no longer his to accomplish.