to play major role in future warfighting
study by USJFCOM's Project Alpha is currently testing the viability
of what used to be a fanciful
notion but is now bordering on reality -- robotic warfare. By
as early as 2005, autonomous robots on the battlefield might
not be just a
notion, but a norm.
By JO1(SW) Ron Schafer
USJFCOM Public Affairs
Robby the Robot first appeared on screen in 1956’s
Forbidden Planet, science fiction in print, film and on television
has pushed the limits of our imagination regarding machines
of the future and their abilities to perform human tasks.
From Star Wars to The Terminator, Junkyard Wars and Robot Warriors,
our glimpse at the potential for tomorrow has amazed and sometimes
Well, get ready. The future may be closer than you think.
Alpha, a U.S. Joint Forces Command rapid idea analysis
group, is in the midst of a study focusing on the concept of developing
and employing robots that would be capable of replacing humans
to perform many, if not most combat functions on the battlefield.
study, appropriately titled, “Unmanned Effects: Taking
the Human out of the Loop,” suggests that by as early as
2025, the presence of autonomous robots, networked and integrated,
on the battlefield might not be the exception, but, in fact, the
support of the study, USJFCOM sponsored a workshop at Johns Hopkins
in Baltimore July 29 through August 1. The workshop,
featuring key speakers who are experts in the field of
robotics and artificial intelligence, was designed to develop a
skeletal operational concept for the employment of autonomous machines
and to raise awareness throughout DoD about current robotic technology
and it’s future potential on the battlefield.
The goal of the study, according to Gordon Johnson, the Unmanned
Effects Team leader for Project Alpha, was to articulate a vision
for the use of robotic forces and promote the formation of a Department
of Defense-level office that will coordinate and integrate efforts
across the armed services, ultimately resulting in joint-service
development of unmanned effects (UFX), rather than the course of
service-centric research that currently exists.
“What we’ve found in the area of robotics, is that
the Navy has programs, the Air Force has programs, the Army has
programs,” Johnson said. “But there’s no one
at the DoD level who has a clear vision of where we’re going
to go with these things. How do we want them to interoperate? How
do we want them to communicate with each other? How do we want
them to interact with humans?”
“Across the Department of Defense, people don’t really
have the big picture. They don’t understand how close we
really are to being able to implement these technologies in some
sort of cohesive way into a cohesive force to achieve the desired
The vision that Johnson wants the study to articulate outlines
the many useful capabilities that will be available in robots before
2025. Characteristics of a tactical autonomous combatant (TAC)
would include the ability to work in ground, air, space, or undersea
environments, and in harsh conditions such as extreme heat or cold.
In addition, TACs, unlike humans, would be able to operate in chemically,
biologically, or radiologically contaminated environments.
“We call them tactical autonomous combatants because they’ll
operate largely autonomously with some limited human supervision,” explained
Johnson. “We’re talking about, where we can and where
we have the capability of replacing humans. We’re not talking
about the operational level or strategic level, but at the tactical
level, still using humans where we need to. Using adjustable autonomy
or supervised autonomy, humans will still have to interact with
the machines and help guide them.”
imperatives for the research are broad but basic. First and foremost,
security is an overriding factor. In many cases,
according to Johnson, robots will be more capable than humans.
They will be more lethal, more mobile, and more survivable. They
will have faster reaction times and have more and superior sensing
capabilities. They don’t have fear, they don’t get
hungry, sleepy, or tired, and they take humans out of danger. And,
from an economic perspective, they are cheaper than humans.
“The robots will take on a wide variety of forms, probably
none of which will look like humans,” explained Dr. Russ
Richards, Project Alpha’s director. “Thus, don’t
envision androids like those seen in movies. The robots will take
on forms that will optimize their use for the roles and missions
they will perform. Some will look like vehicles. Some will look
like airplanes. Some will look like insects or animals or other
objects in an attempt to camouflage or to deceive the adversary.
Some will have no physical form – software intelligent agents
Richards added that technology could currently deliver many of
the capabilities that are envisioned as being necessary for robots.
Robotic sensing abilities already exceed that of humans. Billions
of dollars are being spent to improve and develop mobility, dexterity,
power supplies, miniaturization, weaponry and artificial intelligence.
Power supplies and artificial intelligence will be among the biggest
challenges ahead, but there are others.
“The greatest hurdle is likely to be overcoming military
culture,” Richards said. “Just getting present-day
decision makers to allow robots to perform some functions that
are currently being performed by humans will be difficult. What
is interesting is that we are already doing this. For example,
Patriot missile batteries, close-in-weapons systems, cruise missiles,
and other “smart” weapons are already pretty autonomous.”
will be difficult to overcome the resistance to replacing human
soldiers, sailors, and Marines with robots. Or, to
allow machines to make decisions. The case will have to be made
based on the imperatives.”
And the clock may be ticking. Perhaps an even larger imperative,
according to Richards, is that the United States is not the only
nation that recognizes the future of integrated battlefield robotics.
“We believe that other countries or groups will pursue robotics,” Richards
said. “We can be at the vanguard, or we can lag behind and
some day have to oppose a lethal robotic force. Better to be in