The U.S. Army—which has already been testing robotic squad vehicles like the Multi-Utility Tactical Transport (MUTT) and semi-autonomous targeting systems like the Advanced Targeting and Lethality Automated System (ATLAS)—says it will conduct live-fire testing of a new Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV) built on M113 armored personnel carrier chassis next year.
As first flagged by the Verge, an Army release on Thursday says U.S. troops will control the RCVs from a modified Bradley Fighting Vehicle called “Mission Enabler Technologies-Demonstrators, or MET-Ds.” Two of these vehicles will be used as remote control platforms for four of the modified M113s during the tests, the Army wrote:
The upgraded Bradleys, called Mission Enabler Technologies-Demonstrators, or MET-Ds, have cutting-edge features such as a remote turret for the 25 mm main gun, 360-degree situational awareness cameras and enhanced crew stations with touchscreens.
Initial testing will include two MET-Ds and four robotic combat vehicles on M113 surrogate platforms. Each MET-D will have a driver and gunner as well as four Soldiers in its rear, who will conduct platoon-level maneuvers with two surrogate vehicles that fire 7.62 mm machine guns.
In other words, the RCVs aren’t fully autonomous military vehicles—they’re remotely piloted unmanned vehicles operated from a command vehicle. They’re prototype surrogates for future purpose-built robotic vehicles, but the Army anticipates that soldiers involved in the tests will be able to provide feedback and possibly provide insights into unconventional ways the system could be deployed.
The first phase of testing using the two MET-Ds and four RCVs will commence in March 2020 at Fort Carson in Colorado, while other testing is planned in Eastern Europe in May 2020. In 2021, planned second phase tests will involve “company-level manuevers” using six MET-Ds, four M113 RCVs, and “four light and four medium surrogate” RCVs of a different build. Beyond that, the Army plans on testing “four medium and four heavy purpose-built RCVs” alongside the MET-Ds and M113 RCVs. (“Heavy purpose-built RCVs” appears to be Army speak for what would essentially be robot tanks.)
In the release, Emerging Capabilities Office chief David Centeno Jr. noted that the RCVs are planned to have advanced infrared sensor kits and are intended to help soldiers advance on enemy positions without exposing them to fire. Eventually, Major Cory Wallace said, the Army envisions a battlefield where harming U.S. troops could require fighting through their robot surrogates first: “It [reduces risk] 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.”
The U.S. military already operates drones that it uses in combat operations and for “targeted killings”—a practice that is relentlessly criticized by human rights groups and some international law authorities that see it as exacerbating violence and dubiously legal. These operations have become both far more extensive and even more secretive in the era of the Trump administration, which earlier this year revoked policies requiring it to disclose how many civilians die in such strikes, calling it “superfluous.” The number of countries other than the U.S. using such technology is growing. But so far those strikes have been conducted using aerial drones, with ground-pounding military robots mostly limited to edge roles.
The Defense Department’s official position (Directive 3000.09) is that humans must be able to “exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force,” meaning that robots are officially precluded from independently deciding to kill someone and a human has to pull the trigger. However, at the end of the day, all of these systems are designed to increase the deadliness of combat forces in some capacity, whether it’s surveillance info that could then be used in targeting or hauling equipment for soldiers—the motivating factor behind Google employees’ widespread protests against the company’s secretive Project Maven drone imaging program last year, which it eventually withdrew from.
The RCVs in question are currently operated by humans. But in the press release, the Army mentioned “ongoing efforts” to transfer some operations of the vehicles to “artificial intelligence in order to reduce the cognitive burden on Soldiers.” Hmm.