Last month, the US Pentagon pulled out its crystal ball and released a report that presents a blueprint of what it sees as the future of military robots over the next quarter of a century. It projects likely developments in new unmanned technologies against a background of shrinking budgets and shifting strategic policies, and how the dramatic development and expansion of military unmanned systems requires large-scale consolidation and development to exploit the technology’s full potential.

Flashpoint: Norachi

Imagine it’s the year 2020. A UN nuclear inspection team is expelled from the fictional country of Norachi, which sparks an international incident. Fearing that Norachi is developing nuclear weapons and exporting weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the UN imposes sanctions while asking the US and allied forces to provide surveillance and enforce the export ban.

The US sends military forces into the area, including the latest in robotic craft. UAVs are deployed from land bases and aircraft carriers to provide reconnaissance and communications relays. Meanwhile, unmanned surface craft and submersibles with extreme endurance patrol the coast and seaports, gathering information on Norachi traffic in the area. Backing these up are unmanned strike aircraft.

The data collected indicates unusual activity near the Norachi nuclear facilities. Special forces are sent in to investigate. Along with them are small, birdlike UAVs that perch on power lines, where they soak up power while watching the site. In addition, ground-based robots move in to provide close-up video surveillance. They’re powered by sunlight and moonlight as well as low-powered lasers.

Meanwhile, Norachi is trying to put together a shipment of WMDs to sell abroad. Tracking the vehicles transporting the WMDs using high-altitude aircraft, an air strike is sent in from a carrier consisting of manned joint strike fighters and many combat UAVs to provide tactical intelligence communication relays, jamming support, and strike support, with the joint strike fighters acting as command and control for the UAVs as they press home the attack. The convoy is destroyed and a special extraction team recovers the WMDs.

Back to reality

This little drama is how the US Defense Department sees wars of the future being conducted, with robotic vehicles playing a larger and wider role than ever before and becoming an integrated part of the armed forces. The study, referred to as both a blueprint and a roadmap, restricts itself to generalities, so there aren't any visions of Terminator-like robowarriors, but it does show a future where robots are integrated into military strategy and play a central role in operations.

Array of future unmanned systems (Image: DoD)

According to the Pentagon, exactly what that role will be will depend on lessons learned in southwest Asia and elsewhere as US defense strategy reflects a shift of policy focus to the Asia Pacific region. Unlike the wars that the US has fought since the fall of communism, potential conflicts in this region will involve areas in the air and on the sea that will be contested or denied to the US or allied forces.

With this change in policy, combined with increasingly tight defense budgets, the Pentagon sees developing unmanned air, land, and sea vehicles and other robotic system as a key factor in future military capabilities. Already there are more than 10,000 UAVs alone in the American inventory. These machines have gone from simple eyes in the sky and bomb disposal robots to increasingly intelligent and autonomous systems. Unfortunately, the new study points out that this growth has been like a chaotic crop of weeds with all sorts of devices that rely on proprietary systems that don’t integrate with conventional military hardware, such as radio networks or power supplies.

The reason why the US military is so keen on robots isn't just that robots can do flash things like land on aircraft carriers or hunt for terrorists. It’s that they’re ideal for mundane tasks, such as surveillance missions that can last for hours or days while nothing happens, or for dirty missions, such as checking out areas hit by chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Needless to say, they are also preferred for dangerous missions where it’s better to lose a robot than a soldier.

Over the next 25 years, as technology develops and unmanned systems are consolidated, military planners see robots operating in the air, on land, and on and under the sea – often autonomously. They’re seen as taking over missions such as routine transportation, resupplying ships at sea, special forces support, supplying forces operating in the field, conducting routine inspections, carrying out decontamination and refueling operations, and material handling and combat engineering. They may even one day do casualty evacuation and urban rescue.

Though the report doesn't go into detail, it does refer to combat UAVs as providing strike support. It’s very likely that this does not mean that the UAVs will act as individual fighter aircraft. Instead, they will be under the control of a pilot in a separate aircraft acting as command and control. Essentially, the robots will act less like independent fighters than as gun platforms for the pilot. In other words, instead of having two missiles at his command, the pilot will have ten.

Bringing it all together

In order to achieve all this, the report says that the sort of expensive, piecemeal development that has marked unmanned systems to this point must give way to across the board consolidation and integration. Future unmanned systems will involve making them modular, so they’re more readily maintained and modified, as well as better integration with manned systems.

Since the Pentagon sees unmanned systems coming up against technologically sophisticated enemies that will try to counteract them, more reliable communications that are less susceptible to jamming and hacking are needed. In addition, the robotic warriors of the next 25 years need to be more durable, able to operate in hostile environments, including those where an enemy may offer resistance or tampering. They will need increases in battery power, reduction in size, hardening of systems, and improvements in encryption and other anti-cyberwarfare measures.

One area where unmanned systems are expected to make dramatic progress is in the field of autonomy and cognitive behavior. We’re used to seeing robots on the battlefield helping to defuse bombs or check buildings, but they always are under the remote control of a soldier.

Now imagine some little tracked robot or palm-sized helicopter that a sergeant can tell to “Find out what’s behind that building” and it will be able to figure out which building, what it’s supposed to find, and sort out how it’s going to find it. This is what military planners call “taking the man out of the loop,” so the systems can carry out most of their tasks without supervision or intervention.

The impact of such a capability would mean that in the future soldiers can concentrate on the task at hand rather than operating a drone. Skilled pilots don’t need to operate a UAV at all times or, in some cases, at all. For naval operations, this is especially important because submerged robots can lurk in deep, quiet waters without needing a communications link back to headquarters.

Such automation would not only ease the demand for expensive, highly-trained operators, but by applying such technology to automated maintenance and refueling, even the costs of technicians could be reduced. In addition, such automation would improve the ability of robots to work beside conventional forces by removing the need to tend to them.

At present, armed unmanned systems use common weapons with conventional forces. The report sees this changing over the next 25 years as specialized weapons for unmanned devices are developed, including programmable nanoweapons that use nanotechnology to create explosives that can select exactly the blast yield desired. Unmanned systems can even be weapons themselves, which could loiter in an area for long periods until needed or ordered to return to base.

"The 2013 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap articulates a vision and strategy for the continued development, production, test, training, operation and sustainment of unmanned systems technology across DOD," says Dyke Weatherington, the director of the unmanned warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance office at the Pentagon. "This road map establishes a technological vision for the next 25 years and outlines the actions and technologies for DOD and industry to pursue to intelligently and affordably align with this vision."

Source: Department of Defense (1), (2) (PDF) via The Christian Science Monitor