Robot Wars a reality? The United States Future Combat Systems (FCS) Project

12 01 2007

Are robots a part of future warfare? Very likely, according to the US Department of Defence which plans by 2015 to have one-third of its fighting strength composed of robots, and by 2035, to have the first completely autonomous robot soldiers to stride on to the battlefield.

This transformation is all part of a $127-billion technology project known as Future Combat Systems (FCS), one of the largest technology projects in US history.

However, the FCS Project is not limited to the use of robots in warfare.

Increasing the trend towards militarizing Cyberspace, the plans also include the creation of a hugely complex, distributed mobile computer network on to a battlefield with huge numbers of drones supplying nodes and communication points in an environment under continual attack.

Robot wars

Pete Warren
10 January 2007 06:00

The Demo III is the US Army Research Lab’s newest experimental unmanned vehicle. (Photograph: KL Vantran)

In November 2004, during the second battle of Fallujah, an American uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) — a robot plane — located a mortar battery that had been hampering the United States operation to retake the town. The mortar’s position was logged by the UAV’s operator, who was sitting at his desk in Nellis air-force base near Las Vegas, thousands of kilometres away.

Using the internet, the operator contacted the operator of another armed UAV at a desk in central command (Centcom), a safe area away from the theatre of war with centres in Kuwait, Qatar or Iraq.

The two operators swapped information on the mortar in a secure internet chat room, guiding the armed drone to its position to destroy the mortar and its crew.

According to Lieutenant General John Sattler, commander of the coalition forces at the battle, it was a proving ground for the use of remote vehicles. “We learned that UAVs can provide the coordinates required for artillery as well as aviation [targeting]. Our UAVs gave us the grid coordinates of an enemy position and allowed us to clear the area for fires and estimate collateral damage,” says Sattler.

The new remote-controlled technology was also tested in 2001 in the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border, believed to be the last stronghold for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda fighters. Sending soldiers into the caves to try to capture fighters inside would carry huge risks.

Instead, the US sent in armed Talon reconnaissance drones: small tanks equipped with camera and sensing equipment, and armed with anything from a sniper’s rifle to rocket launchers. They were used to identify caves and positions held by al-Qaeda.

Information gleaned from the Talons was used to direct what rapidly became a mopping-up operation — although Bin Laden was not caught.

Fighting force
But that is only the beginning. By 2015, the US Department of Defence plans that one-third of its fighting strength will be composed of robots, part of a $127-billion project known as Future Combat Systems (FCS). This transformation is part of the largest technology project in US history.

The US Army has already developed about 20 remotely controlled unmanned ground systems that can be controlled by a laptop from about a mile away. The US Navy and Air Force are working on a similar number of systems with varying ranges.

According to a US general quoted in the US Army’s Joint Robotics Programme Master Plan, “what we’re doing with unmanned ground and air vehicles is really bringing movies such as Star Wars to reality”.

The US military has 2 500 uncrewed systems deployed in conflicts around the world. But is it Star Wars or I, Robot that the US is bringing to reality? By 2035, the plan is for the first completely autonomous robot soldiers to stride on to the battlefield.

The US is not alone. Around the globe, 32 countries are now working on the development of uncrewed systems. In the United Kingdom, Qinetiq, the UK’s former Defence Research Agency, which owns Foster-Miller, manufacturers of the Talon system, confirmed that it has developed remote bulldozers and earthmovers and that its technology could also be installed in tanks.

Scientists at Qinetiq said in an interview two years ago that it had built a robot fighter plane. When flown on test flights, they said, the fighter is accompanied by two crewed fighters, whose role is to shoot it down if it malfunctions.

Among the 37 or so UAVs detailed in the US Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005-2030, two projects demonstrated in 2004 — the Boeing X45a and the Northrop Grumman X47a (both uncannily similar to the Stealth fighter) — are listed as joint unmanned combat air systems.

A similar project, the Cormorant, which can be launched from a submerged submarine, can be used by special forces for ground support. A close reading of the UAV systems road map shows the startling progress the US has already made in this field, with systems ranging from fighters to helicopters and propeller-driven missiles called Long Guns on display.

But if this is the beginning of the end of humanity’s presence on the battlefield, it merits an ethical debate that the military and its weapons designers are shying away from. Neither of the documents detailing the US military robot plans, for example, mentions the Geneva Convention, which sets out the treatment in wartime of the sick, wounded, civilians and prisoners.

Reacting to claims that the deployment of the Talon systems in Iraq and Afghanistan was not fair, Foster-Miller replied that the war on terror was not a fair fight anyway.

“These robots will continue to evolve,” says Bob Quinn, general manager at Foster-Miller. “The concept now is to introduce a range of human sensors, so that we can convey the impression to the operator that they are actually there, so that they can talk, smell and see. The thinking is that it is very important to have people involved in the loop.”

In the fog of battle, some UAVs have already fired on their own side. With the increasing likelihood of more autonomous systems being deployed, some US generals have also raised concerns about the reliability of software and its vulnerability to hacking and viruses, pointing out that a rogue robot could inflict considerable damage on humans on its own side in a battle.

The FCS project is far more than the use of robots. It also involves the creation of a hugely complex, distributed mobile computer network on to a battlefield with huge numbers of drones supplying nodes and communication points in an environment under continual attack.

For the military, a hacker taking over any part of the FCS is its worst nightmare — and a prospect the US has actively examined. In the mid-1990s, hackers from the US Air Force Information Warfare Centre managed to take over the cruise missile system on a US Navy missile frigate.

In 1999, one US military source told Aviation Week and Space Technology that “Air Combat Command has been conducting a lot of information warfare activity. By that I mean getting into their computer system and screwing it up.”

It’s a technique that US soldiers say was honed against the Serbians during conflicts in the Balkans: “False messages and targets were injected into Yugoslavia’s complex computer integrated air defence system.”

Cyberspace has been a recognised domain for war by the air force since December 2005, but for generals seeking the certainty of destruction, hacking isn’t enough. They want a more concrete back-up; as a result work is now been carried out on futuristic microwave weapons including high emission radio frequency guns, which can knock out individual systems, and the electromagnetic pulse, which can be used to knock out a country’s electronic infrastructure.

John Pike, director of global security and spokesperson for the Federation of American Scientists, says: “On the battlefield, half of the soldiers don’t aim their weapons at people because they don’t want to hurt them or give them cause to hurt them. The robots that are under development fire dispassionately, and are being pointed by people who don’t have to worry about being shot at.”

The introduction of robot forces, he says, “is raising some very difficult issues that the department of defence has not thought through, and those are about hearts and minds.”

The Pentagon declined to answer questions about the issues raised by the use of robots, saying that the department would “be happy to discuss particular weapons systems under development rather than theoretical issues”.

But Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defence Initiative at the Brookings Institute, who is an expert on FCS, says: “The human monopoly on war is being broken. Science fiction has now become science reality, and we are changing the rules of the game. It’s something we have to discuss and it’s better we talk now than afterwards.” – © Guardian News and Media Ltd 2007

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