US Dept of Defense wants autonomous robot army by 2034

by Tony Rodriguez

“It will save lives”, or so the argument goes. Sending a robot warrior onto the battlefield instead of humans seems like the logical next step in a world moving toward greater efficiency and automation. Everyone seems in love with this new technological trend of automated devastation: from the corporations that will profit from the sale of them; to the military leaders who admire the increased killing power of the robotic drones.

As I write this, in 2010, fully autonomous killer robots are still in the early trial phase, when scientists are still working out the bugs and lawyers are still clambering over liability issues. However, according to recent estimates there are at least 6000 robots at some level of autonomous operation in active deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to an article in Military Aerospace, former U.S. Air Force (USAF) Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley said, “We’ve moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper.” Currently, the U.S. Air Force’s fleet stands at 195 Predators and 28 Reapers.

As the armed forces rapidly move toward greater use of these robotic warriors, one can only wonder what this horrific automated battlefield will look like twenty years from now. Fortunately for us, there is no need to speculate about the future role of killer robots. We have only to look at one of the military’s playbooks for the development and deployment of robotic systems: the “2009 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap” released by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The main point that can be gleaned from a careful reading of this Roadmap is not if the front-line military will be composed almost entirely of automated, killer robots but when. And we don’t have to wonder too long about when either, for this document gives the answer to that question too: by about 2034 — if everything goes according to plan.

The DoD Roadmap paints a frightening picture of a fully-autonomous army of self-maintaining combat robots whose mission endurance is measured in years:

As autonomy progresses from teleoperation, to semi-autonomy, and finally full autonomy, mission endurance will need to keep pace. The more a system is capable of doing without operator intervention, the longer it can execute on its own. The predicted performance envelope expects that as autonomy increases, so too will the call for increased mission endurance.

Today, mission endurance is measured in hours. In the future, it will be desirable for unmanned systems to conduct their missions in durations measured in days, weeks, months, and feasibly years. This is a key, desirable attribute as manned tasks are always constrained by the human body’s need for food and sleep.

As autonomous behavior increases in sophistication and mission endurance increases to months, the need for self-diagnostics and self-repair becomes evident.

In order to extend the mission endurance of combat robots, the Roadmap recommends that Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGVs) might in some strange way become part of the ecosystem and, according to the DoD document, “live off the land.”

The ability to use bio-mass would allow an unmanned system to increase its mission endurance and increase its covert advantages by “living off the land.” The ideal bio-mass reactor would allow the unmanned systems to convert prepared food stuffs as well as raw foods and natural bio-mass.

Apparently, in their attempt to extend the mission life of these new techno-hitmen from hours to years, the architects of destruction have decided to mimic natural predators and decided that after a human being is maimed or killed they might as well be eaten for sustenance.

Amazingly, according to the Roadmap, the UGVs will have mammal-like curiosity and agility as well:

While UAS may fly in and around urban settings, and UUVs and USVs may operate in and around ports and marinas, UGVs will be the predominant vehicles expected to conduct missions within buildings, tunnels, and through city streets. This requires that UGVs be able to operate in Global Positioning System (GPS)-denied areas, traverse stairs, deal with elevators, open doors, and possibly even open windows, desk and file drawers, and cupboards, etc. In addition to the challenge of navigating and traversing within buildings, UGVs will need to navigate within and through city streets that will be busy with traffic and pedestrians. Urban streets also mean UGVs will have to contend with curbs, trash, water drains, etc.

Of course, as stated in the Roadmap document, this planned level of full automation presents a problem for the multitude of currently employed US military personnel:

Creation of substantive autonomous systems/platforms within each domain will create resourcing and leadership challenges for all the Services, while challenging their respective Warfighter cultures as well. The automating of the actual operation/fighting of platforms will decrease the need for people to crew them …

Culturally, there will be stresses from the potentially significant decrease in the combatant jobs of each Service, e.g. Infantry for the Army, pilots for the Air Force, etc. and the attendant reduction in numbers of the main focus of each Service, i.e. the combatants.

The recommendation of the Roadmap is that even though there will be “vocal and forceful” resistance to the adoption of fully-autonomous robots, “these pockets of resistance need to be addressed and eliminated, for the overall good of the Joint Force.”

The Combatant Commands, their components, and the individual Services have embraced unmanned systems philosophically because they are a capability multiplier and can reduce risk to personnel. However, when the procurement of unmanned systems threaten manned systems budgets or career paths of manned systems operators, the manned systems invariably win out due to vocal and forceful remonstrations by the threatened communities. Unmanned systems offer as yet largely unseen operational capabilities, and these pockets of resistance need to be addressed and eliminated, for the overall good of the Joint Force.

But don’t expect for a minute that these hunter-killer devices are going to be restricted to attacking rogue individuals in nations at the far corners of the earth. The memo states quite succinctly: “The goal is to achieve transparent flight operations in the NAS. (national airspace)”.

There are various systems, both on and off board, and policy changes being explored to allow incremental access to the civil airspace system.

It’s not hard to understand the principle reasons for the military’s love of killer robots? They have many advantages over a wildly uncontrollable human soldier: 1) they are expendable, without nasty repercussions from surviving family members; 2) they are controllable, they will not flinch in executing whatever orders are given no matter how repulsive they would be to a human soldier; and most importantly 3) they are expensive, they will only be available to the upper echelons of the global society.

But one could ask, why does the military really need automated unmanned ground robots which can “climb stairs, deal with elevators, open doors, and possibly even open windows, desk and file drawers, and cupboards, etc.”? I hazard to guess that it’s because the designers of these systems know very well that the enemies they will finally contend with will not be large, organized armies from “developed” nations. No, the enemy they are preparing to fight are the small groups of rogue individuals who understand what is finally happening and will not stand for it. These will be the future terrorists. And, like something out of the Terminator movie, they anticipate that these last pockets of rebellious individuals will hide from the hunter-killers in mostly urban areas. If everything goes according to the plans of the Roadmap, the last elements of rebellion will be rooted out so that the coming totalitarian technocracy can fully emerge.

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