Machines Are Filling In for Troops

Rapid advances in technology have brought an array of sensors, vehicles and weapons that can be operated by remote control or are totally autonomous.

WASHINGTON — From Homer to Hemingway, Sun Tzu to Churchill, humans have been fascinated by the violence and plotting, the heroism and sacrifice, the epic theater of what Dryden called “the trade of kings” — war.

But the Pentagon, energized by successes in Afghanistan, is moving ever closer to draining the human drama from the battlefield and replacing it with a ballet of machines.

Rapid advances in technology have brought an array of sensors, vehicles and weapons that can be operated by remote control or are totally autonomous. Within a decade, those machines will be able to perform many of the most dangerous, strenuous or boring tasks now assigned to people, military planners say, paving the way for a fundamental change in warfare.

Already, autonomous sentinels on the ground, in the air and in orbit are probing the battlefield with heat detectors, radar, cameras, microphones and other devices. Some can reveal decoys and pierce camouflage, darkness and bad weather.

In years to come, once targets are found, chances are good that they will be destroyed by weapons from pilotless vehicles that can distinguish friends from foes without consulting humans.

The rapid shift away from people — what the Pentagon calls manned units — to automation has several goals.

Many new devices will be much smaller and lighter, making them cheaper, more fuel efficient and easier to move, advocates contend. And because of their unlimited attention spans, machines should do better at tedious, time-consuming tasks that human warriors loathe, like standing guard or monitoring mountain passes.

But most important, many officials say, remote technology can shield and aid the the flesh-and-blood soldier.

“We seem as a society, thank God, very averse to taking casualties,” said Dr. Gervasio Prado, the president of SenTech, a Massachusetts company refining book-size robotic sentinels that can be sprinkled on battlefields to listen for enemy vehicles.

“We’ll continue putting as much effort as possible into keeping the humans in a safe location and do this dirty job remotely,” he said.

In the short run, soldiers, pilots and sailors will still be essential components of any battle, military planners say. This will be particularly true in urban settings, where buildings, tunnels and people create confusing obstacles that no machine will be able to skirt for years to come.

But over time, experts largely agree, remote-sensing and piloting technologies will produce the biggest change in warfare in generations.

By 2020 or earlier, if the Pentagon and its many supporters in Congress and the White House have their way, pilotless planes and driverless buggies will direct remote-controlled bombers toward targets; pilotless helicopters will coordinate driverless convoys, and unmanned submarines will clear mines and launch cruise missiles.

“The promise is enormous,” said Dr. M. Franklin Rose, an electrical engineer who is leading a study of driverless ground vehicles being done for the Army by the Board on Army Science and Technology of the National Academy of Sciences. “Robotics can do three things for the future army: keep soldiers out of harm’s way, do the laborious and boring tasks and keep going long after a soldier is exhausted. And they have no fear, at least in current embodiments.”

Some simple devices, like infrared and night-vision scopes, are available to enemies as well. But no country or terrorist group will have the ability any time soon to deploy these systems so widely and deeply in its forces, many military analysts say.

It is a dream long in the making that has been stunningly accelerated by the war in Afghanistan. There, several pilotless surveillance aircraft turned in unexpectedly strong performances, including the Air Force’s Predator and its missile-toting cousin from the Central Intelligence Agency. They piped streaming video of Taliban and Qaeda movements to command posts in Saudi Arabia and the Pentagon, where commanders could then call almost immediate air strikes.

As a result, the Pentagon has requested $1.1 billion, an increase of nearly $150 million, in the 2003 budget to accelerate development of the Predator, Global Hawk and other pilotless planes.

“Why send a marine into harm’s way when you can send an $8,000 vehicle instead?” said Brig. Gen. Douglas V. O’Dell, commander of the Fourth Marine Expeditionary Brigade, referring to the Marines’ new pilotless aircraft, the Dragon Fly.

Today’s advances in military technology are the result of an effort to extending forces’ ability to see over the foxhole rim, the next ridge or across a national border and to speed the application of deadly force.

In Vietnam, troops dropped battery-powered listening devices, designed to track submarines, into the forest along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and broadcast the sounds of activity below to crews in planes circling above. The Pentagon also used remotely piloted surveillance drones, including ones armed with Maverick missiles, in Vietnam. But crude technology and limited range discouraged further development.

But the 1990’s saw leaps in computer and sensor technology that reignited interest in remote controlled weapons. In Bosnia, the military tried an Army drone called the Hunter; in Kosovo, it first deployed the Predator. By the time American warplanes began attacking Afghanistan, the Air Force had learned out how link the Predator’s cameras to video screens on AC-130 gunships, aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea and the Combined Air Operation Command Center in Saudi Arabia.

A few years ago, listening devices, called unattended ground sensors, weighed 30 pounds and were lugged into enemy territory by troops. Now they weigh three pounds. One model is designed to be dropped from aircraft. The sturdy sensors detect vibrations and sounds. Using a computerized library of the distinctive noises produced by a host of enemy engines, tank treads and the like, they recognize passers-by.

The next step will be to integrate data from the unattended sensors with information flowing from high-flying drones or satellites, said Dr. Prado, whose company builds the listening devices.

By using different sensors to scour the same landscape and comparing the information, it will be easier to unmask decoys or camouflaged weapons, officials say. As recently as the Kosovo bombing campaign, decoys regularly fooled American bombers.

Leading the Pentagon’s remote-control warfare effort is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which operates out of Northern Virginia. The agency is working with Boeing to developed the X-45 unmanned combat air vehicle. The 30-foot-long windowless planes look like flying “W’s” and will carry up to 12 250-pound bombs. In their initial deployments, as early as 2007, they will be used to attack radar and antiaircraft installations.

The Pentagon estimates that pilotless aircraft will cost less than half as much as piloted fighter jets like the F-15 or F-18, largely because they lack humans.

At first, the aircraft will be programmed to ask human controllers for permission to bomb targets. By 2010, the Pentagon envisions that the X-45 will independently attack targets in designated “kill boxes.” Then, “If the aircraft sees a target that matches its memory, it hits it and tells the humans about it later,” said Col. Michael Leahy of the Air Force, the program director.

The research agency and the Army are also working on the Future Combat System, a network of pilotless and piloted aircraft, transport vehicles and artillery pieces linked by high-speed communications.

The goal is to make the Army lighter and more nimble. Pilotless vehicles are expected to play a central role. Small hovering drones would peek over ridgetops, while unoccupied helicopters would watch troop movements. Closest to deployment is an all-terrain vehicle programmed to follow a soldier, hauling weapons and other gear.

The Pentagon already has the Hornet, essentially a land mine with a 100-yard reach. When it hears an approaching vehicle, it launches a device into the air that uses a heat sensor to direct a potent projectile down at the target.

Miniaturization is a keystone. Another goal is a “microair vehicle” less than nine inches long that can be carried in a backpack and, when launched, will send images from tiny heat sensors and cameras.

There are many technological and strategic hurdles. First, drones like the Predator require humans to do almost all their thinking. Having unoccupied vehicles accomplish the sophisticated maneuvers envisioned by Pentagon planners will require much greater autonomy, and more powerful artificial intelligence.

“Flying a Global Hawk from California to Australia, impressive as that is, is not as hard as driving an unmanned ground vehicle from here to the Capitol,” said Dr. E. Allen Adler, director of the tactical technology office at the advanced projects agency, whose office is about five miles from Capitol Hill.

Second, the armed services have not begun adjusting their strategies to incorporate robotic vehicles. That will take years of study and training, experts and commanders say.

“The real challenge is to mix man and machines,” said Colonel Leahy, program director for the pilotless fighter. “It will be a loose ballet at first. But eventually, the systems will be linked to each other, sharing information and deciding among them who has the best shot.”

Third, Afghanistan did little to educate the Pentagon on how a more capable military rival might adjust to unmanned systems. The Taliban never learned how to shoot down a Predator, but Saddam Hussein’s troops may have bagged at least two last year over southern Iraq. A sophisticated foe might disarm, destroy or confuse pilotless aircraft, rendering them useless or even turning them against American forces.

Finally, debate persists over just how much the military should rely on machines. Most military experts still say the human brain remains the most effective weapon.

“The onboard logic of unmanned combat aerial vehicles will not begin to approach the computational capacity of human brains, making them highly vulnerable to attacks by manned aircraft,” Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer for the Lexington Institute, which studies military issues, testified before the Senate last week.

In the end, said Dr. Rose, the electrical engineer assessing ground vehicles, the biggest challenge will be to design the technology so that to the fighter it becomes an invisible, almost subconscious, extension of the eyes, ears or trigger finger. That will take another generation, he said.

“Already, so many of these young soldiers grew up on video games and computers,” he said. “They grew up trusting machines.”

Eventually, he said, the new weapons and sensors will slide into the ethos of war just like the autopilot, which was once disparaged by aviators as “Iron Mike” but is now a standard part of airplane cockpits.

“But it’ll still be 20 or 25 years up the road before we get to the point where you regard `Iron Mike’ as a member of your squad as opposed to a nuisance,” Dr. Rose said.

Author: James Dao and Andrew C. Revkin

News Service: The New York Times


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: