A new generation of battlebots is gaining momentum.

What’s new: The Army is at least two years ahead of schedule in its plan to deploy self-driving (and self-aiming) transports, jeeps, and tanks, said Richard Ross Coffman, director of Next Generation Combat Vehicles, in an interview with Breaking Defense.

Rolling thunder: The NGCV program features three phases of testing for vehicles of graduated firepower and autonomy.

  • In Phase One, beginning in early 2020, the Army will test autonomous-driving hard- and software on Vietnam-era armored transports. The vehicles will be remote-controlled by soldiers in M2 Bradley transports.
  • In 2021, Phase Two will test the same hardware on custom-built vehicles. Half of these four-wheeled prototypes will be lightweight models (less than 10 tons) and carry machine guns and anti-tank missiles. The other half will be medium-weight (up to 12 tons) and able to carry bigger weaponry.
  • Heavyweight autonomous tanks weighing up to 20 tons and mounted with 120mm cannons will roll out in 2023 for Phase Three.
  • Coffman envisions systems that enable one human to control a dozen tanks in 2035 or later. Even then, a flesh-and-blood soldier will oversee firing.

Behind the news: The U.S. Army has spent billions on robotic fighting machines that never came to fruition. In 2009, the service cancelled a previous autonomous war-fighting effort, the $20 billion Future Combat Systems program, after six years in development. That program was nixed partly because the technology didn’t progress as quickly as expected and partly due to a shift from warfare to counterterrorism.

Why it matters: Robot vehicles could act as decoys, drawing fire meant for human troops. They could also infiltrate enemy lines and call in artillery strikes, gather information, screen for obstacles, and wade into areas affected by nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

What they’re saying: “Anywhere that a soldier is at the highest risk on the battlefield, and we can replace him or her with a robot, that’s what we want to do.” — Richard Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicles, U.S. Army.

We’re thinking: How is the Army, which must cope with irregular terrain, intermittent explosions, and the fog of war, ahead of schedule when the automotive industry, navigating smooth surfaces and relatively orderly traffic, has fallen behind its initial projections? The military faces very different problems, some harder to navigate than urban environments, some easier. Its emphasis on remote control also could make a significant difference.

Bottom line: Like many people, we’re unsettled by the combination of AI and fighting machines. We strongly support proposals for an international ban on autonomous weapons.


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