OpinionMeister

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Unmanned Warfare

The Washington Times has a fascinating special report on our growing capabilities in unmanned warfare. Link.
The campaign that started in Afghanistan in October 2001 marked the beginning of the war against al Qaeda. It also ushered in the age of unmanned warfare.
In the next 20 years, machines will do more of the fighting. The Pentagon will spend $25 billion by 2012 to develop more than 20 air, sea and land systems. [...]

The overall aim is to reduce American casualties by allowing machines to spy and fight. But Pentagon officials warn that the public's expectations for unmanned warfare far exceeds what actually is planned. [...]

How far the unmanned movement goes depends on the skill and imagination of engineers, and the willingness of admirals and generals to surrender more of the fight to unmanned vehicles.
Another question is whether the skies over a battlefield will have enough room for each service's appetite for different kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Gen. John Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, told a symposium at the Heritage Foundation in April that there are now 750 UAVs operating in Iraq.
"We've already had two midair collisions between UAVs and other airplanes. We have got to get our arms around this thing," [...]

In the 3½-year war on terror, the military has introduced a handful of systems that engineers say will only get better with time.
When commanders realized they were encountering a new threat in Iraq -- improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- the Navy quickly deployed IRobot Corp's PackBot EOD (explosive ordnance disposal). The portable robot -- a claw and camera on a small, tracked vehicle -- is being used by the scores to inspect and disarm IEDs.
The Air Force Predator, a 27-foot-long unmanned aerial vehicle used for soda-straw views of the battlefield, became the first robotic strike airplane after engineers affixed it with Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The Predator also acted as a precision bomber that, for example, was used to take out Baghdad's main television transmitter during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In that war, the Navy called upon an unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) to scour the channel leading to Iraq's main port at Umm Qasr. Before, divers had to use a hit-and-miss system to find and defuse mines. This time, the UUV called REMUS, or Remote Environmental Measuring Units, found and charted suspicious objects. [...]

Robotic systems will play an even larger role in war planning if Congress endorses the Army's next-generation, $100 billion armada of weapons, the Future Combat System (FCS).
The FCS is the Army's invasion force of the next decade, a network of manned and unmanned vehicles tied together in a digital communications net that relies on air and ground robotic systems to provide intelligence and do a limited amount of fighting.
An unmanned helicopter, the Fire Scout, would have sufficient payload to launch strikes during six-hour missions. Also in the works is a backpack drone, which a soldier could deploy to a rooftop. There, it would sit unnoticed, sending back live video.
On the ground, soldiers would carry small robots to throw out into a minefield, where they would methodically search for explosives. Five-ton unmanned vehicles would clear the field. A 12-ton armored vehicle would be used to complement tanks.

Throughout the 20th and now the 21st centuries, the US military has been willing to spend dollars and material instead of men whenever it could. This is the biggest impetus behind unmanned combat systems. They cannot replace men on the ground, but they can make each man on the ground more effective and more deadly. They can do battle-field reconnaissance in areas where it would be too dangerous to use men on the ground or pilots, and this additional reconnaissance can save a lot of lives. It is a no-brainer to predict that the trend toward developing more unmanned systems to handle more situations will continue.

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