Your time spent playing Call of Duty and watching Robot Wars might prepare you for combat better than basic training does. Unmanned vehicles, on land, in the air and in the ocean, are the future of warfare. A Visiongain defense report states that spending on unmanned ground combat vehicles (UGCVs) alone will top $700 million in 2011.
Unmanned military vehicles come in two types: Autonomous and teleoperated. The former pilot themselves, repair themselves, gather information about their surroundings and try to keep people and property safe while achieving military objectives. Teleoperated systems, meanwhile, work in the manner of remote-controlled cars. Someone sitting in a control center thousands of miles away can direct their actions.
The American military relies increasingly upon UGVs. Such vehicles can handle mundane tasks like border surveillance, freeing up human soldiers for more sensitive and vital missions. They can also handle dangerous tasks, like locating and defusing improvised explosive devices. This protects soldiers in combat, allowing them to live and fight another day.
Last month, defense contractor Oshkosh Defense showed the industry its newest UGV, TerraMax. The advanced UGV successfully piloted itself for over six miles without input from a GPS. This news came the same day that the Army ended research and development on the Multifunction Utility / Logistics and Equipment Vehicle, also known as “MULE.” But that move came more out of a sense that it was outdated and redundant with other defense department robotics program. And the broader trend worldwide is toward more robots and fewer men on the battlefield.
The increased use of unmanned vehicles comes with both promise and pitfalls. Perfected UGVs deliver on the promise of the neutron bomb — i.e. blowing up things while leaving people intact, and without that whole “rendered inhabitable for generations” problem. Humanity might enter a future where war still exists, but with highly diminished casualty levels, both in terms of military and civilian deaths.
Still, there are a number of problems with unmanned vehicles. While taking the human equation out of war removes the possibility of human error, it also takes the human element out of war. Further, UGVs also raise the specter of nations going to war as easily as they would play a game of Command and Conquer.
Oh, and the technology isn’t anywhere near perfect yet. The military uses drones extensively in Pakistan, with mixed results. Numbers vary, but the Brookings Institute estimates that around ten civilians are killed for every enemy combatant in Pakistan, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism states that around 385 civilians have died due to drone attacks, with over 160 children included in that number. The Central Intelligence Agency, unsurprisingly offers a more conservative number; according to the CIA, no civilians have died due to drone attacks since May 2010.
Such “collateral damage” is problematic for pragmatic as well as humanitarian reasons. Not only does it royally piss off the civilian population in countries nominally allied with the United States, it also raises issues of international law. Lawmakers in Pakistan and human rights lawyers internationally have called for prosecutions related to civilian deaths. This means that soldiers controlling these robots might be arrested and tried by American allies, as well as enemies.
Finally, as the connection between men and the battlefield becomes severed, so does the connection between the men fighting a war together. The bonds forged by men in battle are not the same as the bonds forged by men playing video games. Future generations of soldiers piloting and programming unmanned military vehicles will have an experience most akin to a few hours spent on Xbox than Band of Brothers. The real cost of that runs even deeper. When war feels just like a video game, will anyone give a crap about human life?