Key point: It will take a while to develop, but the Pentagon wants optionally-manned platforms that can fire Javelin anti-tank missiles.
On Sept. 10, 2019, a Titan unmanned ground vehicle fired multiple Javelin anti-tank missiles at targets on the Army’s Redstone range in Alabama.
The test represented a big step for the U.S. military as it moves to acquire armed robots for high-end warfare.
Of course, the QinetiQ-made Titan isn’t a “robot tank,” Sydney Freedberg wrote at Breaking Defense.
From Breaking Defense:
It does have tracks, the better to traverse rough terrain and boggy ground, but it weighs just about one ton and was originally designed to haul supplies for foot troops. The missile launcher is fired by remote control — by a human, not an algorithm (although there’s targeting tech in development that has the potential to change that).
But after one shot, the robot can’t reload itself, so a human has to manhandle a new missile onto the launcher — for now. So this robot is no rival to the 70-ton M-1 tank and its 120-millimeter smoothbore gun, whose high-velocity shells no existing active protection system can stop.
But a robot tank isn’t what the Army is looking for, Freedberg explained. “Instead, it’s looking at robotic combat vehicles that could be much smaller, cheaper and more expendable than its manned vehicles — five 10, or 20 tons, officials say– allowing them to play very different tactical roles.”
“One obvious mission for the robots is sacrificial delaying actions in the face of an overwhelming advance. Yes, human troops can also carry the Javelin, and trained infantry will probably be better at hiding than a robot, even a relatively small one like the one-ton Titan. But once those humans open fire, they will be targeted, and not all of them will make it out.”
The missile-firing Titan could help the Army better understand UGVs as it plans for a bigger experiment combining human soldiers and armed robots.
Soldiers riding in a specially-modified M-2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle will control a platoon of ground robots during an exercise in Colorado in 2020.
The planned test “moves beyond the basic ‘robotic wingman’ pursuits that have so far led how the mechanized community of the Army is getting at using semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles,” Army Times reporter Todd South explained.
Army officials intend for the month-long exercise at Fort Carson to gather data for the service’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center. The soldiers in the exercise will operate the unmanned ground vehicles from inside upgraded Bradleys that the Army refers to as “Mission Enabler Technologies-Demonstrators.”
The upgrades include a remotely-operated turret for the vehicle’s 25-millimeter gun, extra sensors for 360-degree awareness and new crew stations with touchscreens, according to an Army release.
The Colorado war game will involve two of the special Bradley controlling a total of four UGVs, South reported.
The U.S., British and Russian militaries, among others, quickly are moving to integrate armed robots into their ground forces.
The U.S. Army has begun shopping around for a robotic armored vehicle that can replace some of the branch's old M-2 Bradley manned fighting vehicles. The 2020 war game could inform those efforts.
This “Optionally-Manned Fighting Vehicle” could operate with or without a human crew, allowing commanders to deploy the vehicles on missions that are too risky for human beings.
Some initial testing took place as early as 2017. An armed, robotic M-113 tracked armored vehicle provided covering fire for soldiers during a summer 2017 war game in Michigan.
For the exercise, engineers added a remotely-controlled machine gun to a remotely-controlled M-113. The operators of the M-113 and its machine gun followed behind the drone in an M-577 command vehicle, issuing commands via radio.
The Russian army is developing its own robotic vehicles and running experiments in order to develop tactics for deploying the unmanned systems. The new tactics point to Russia's growing determination to field, on the ground and in the air, meaningful numbers of armed robots.
The Kremlin is using the tracked, tank-size Marker ground robot for these tactical experiments. A video the Russian government released in March 2019 depicts a mixed crew of human and robot scouts feeding information to a main force of large, tank-like drones.
"Marker is built to be modular, with open information architecture," reporter Kelsey Atherton wrote. "One configuration for the testbed arms it with a Kalashnikov-produced machine gun and a part of anti-tank grenade launchers. We can safely expect to see it test a range of weapons."
Adding ground robots to infantry and armor units “reduces risk,” said U.S. Army major Cory Wallace, who oversees some UGV development for the service. “It does so by expanding the geometry of the battlefield so that before the threat makes contact with the first human element, it has to make contact with the robots.”
"That, in turn, gives commanders additional space and time to make decisions,” Wallace said.