The US Army has plans to become smaller and more lethal, and may replace as many as 1,000 combat team soldiers with robots and unmanned vehicles. This would mean that robots could be seen in battle alongside trained soldiers in the not too distant future.
According to the head of Training and Doctrine Command, Gen. Robert Cone, the plan is to make combatants more agile and easy to deploy. Using robots for certain tasks would add substantial maneuverability, and using unmanned platforms and unmanned vehicles would reduce the amount of protection required for brigade combat teams. It would also reduce the weight of combat teams.
Speaking during an army aviation symposium in Arlington, Virginia earlier this month, Gen. Cone announced that an advisory panel was being established to look at these issues. He said that over the past 12 years a lot had been sacrificed in terms of force protection. A lot had also been lost in terms of “lethality.” He continued by saying that while the army has declared its intention to decrease the force from 540,000 soldiers by 50,000 by the end of next year, to about 490,000, they still want to reclaim “maneuverability, deployability and firepower.”
Currently the brigade combat team comprises 4,000 soldiers. He believes that increasing its technological capabilities would enable them to cut the team by a quarter, to 3,000.
There are nine US soldiers in each squad, some of which operate with vehicles and some without. If robots were to replace the soldiers in battle, pulled out of the total combat team, there may be two robots assigned to each squad.
Gen. Cone explained that automation was key because “people are our major cost.” Currently about half of the army’s total budget is spent on personnel costs. Specifically, “robots or manned/unmanned teaming” are what he had in mind.
According to the Commander of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, it will be necessary to “fundamentally change the nature” of the US Defense Force between 2030 and 2040. While he doesn’t specify robots, he says it will take “a breakthrough” in both technology and science to achieve this.
These will not be the first robotic soldiers to be absorbed into the force, or the first unmanned devices. Robots have been used to dispose of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and RQ-11 Raven unmanned aircraft are used for surveillance, low-altitude reconnaissance and to find targets. The US Army has also tested a number of remote-controlled robots that are designed to fire guns. The difference is that they have not yet been used to fight in battle alongside human soldiers.
Already the army has begun to change brigade combat team structure, improving the capability of “engineering and fires” and adding a “third maneuver battalion” to every brigade. It has also announced that the team (or squad) quota will be reduced to 33 from 45 by the end of the 2017 fiscal year. This of course does not take into account the number of robots that may replace US soldiers in battle by 2040.
By Penny Swift