By David Hambling
There is a taboo about putting weapons on robots. When Dallas police killed a sniper using an improvised bomb on a robot in 2016, there was a national outcry, and the tactic has not been repeated. The same caution has long applied in the U.S. military, and any suggestion that robots will get weapons still draws a strong reaction. But Special Forces may have quietly broken this longstanding taboo.
Drone strikes against terrorist and insurgent leadership have become routine, although the policy of arming drones seems to have resulted from considerable pressure by the CIA in the face of Air Force resistance. When it comes to putting weapons on unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), the Pentagon has been more cautious.
Back in the 80’s the experimental Teleoperated Mobile Anti-Armor Platform was a 600-pound remote-controlled vehicle. The operator could maneuver it into position and launch missiles at massed Soviet tanks from a safe distance. TMAP worked well in demonstrations up to 1987 but Congress were not impressed – they thought it was too small and underpowered — and TMAP never made it into service.
The Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) has been tested by the U.S. military for around fifteen years but never deployed. U.S. Special Forces may have quickly fielded their own alternative.QinetiQ
Many other projects spiraled down the same route. In 2007 the Army finally seemed ready when it deployed three Talon/SWORDS to Iraq. SWORDS was an armed version of a bomb-disposal robot, and had a similar task of being sent in where it was too dangerous for a human. The robots were never used in action though, apparently for political rather than operational reasons, and were withdrawn. There were concerns over how the media would react to ‘killer robots’ and fears what would happen if anything went wrong.
Development has continued since then, with the MAARS robot made by QinetiQ going through seemingly endless evaluations while the military work out tactics, techniques and procedures without ever reaching conclusions. Other U.S. armed robots projects look great on video but similarly remain in development limbo.
Meanwhile the U.S. Army has been deploying remote-controlled weapons by the thousand. The Commonly Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS) in an unmanned turret which enables an operator inside a vehicle to find and engage targets with a machinegun from under armor.
It seems Special Forces had an urgent need for an armed robot and bypassed the existing Army projects. An R&D budget document from the Office of the Secretary of Defense reveals that Special Operation Command developed a Lightweight Remote Weapons System (LRWS), a miniature version of the CROWS turret:
“Description: LRWS rapidly developed and evaluated a remote weapon station with significant size weight and power reduction to enable operations on remotely operated small ground vehicles.” (My emphasis).
The LRWS cuts the weight from 350 pounds to just 70, making it small enough to be mounted on vehicles like the Talon. It may be adapted from the commercial Super Lite version of CROWS which also weighs 70 pounds. It includes a daytime zoom camera and thermal imager plus laser range finder. It supports 5.56mm, 7.62mm, and .50 caliber ammunition – either a machinegun or a sniper rifle. Such weapons can be extremely accurate, as shown by the remote assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist.
The document specifies LRWS is a ‘man-in-the-loop’ system controlled by a human operator rather than being an autonomous weapon. It adds:
“LRWS transitioned to U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) for immediate force protection of SOF operators while conducting the operational evaluation of the prototype units and will subsequently be available to all operators within the USSOCOM.” (My emphasis).
This suggests that Special Forces acquired the new remote weapon systems and are using them on unmanned vehicles for Force Protection, such as guarding a base perimeter.
Forbes reached out to SOCOM, who said they do not discuss their cutting-edge capabilities publicly. A spokesman did state though that the document “does not explicitly specify the vehicle SOF operators are using while assessing the prototype station in question.”
So they may be using the remote weapon station on a robot, or they may not. It might possibly be on something like the Ground Mobility Vehicle, their new lightweight high-mobility transport.
The Russians are more gung-ho about armed robots, having used radio-controlled Teletanks fitted with flamethrowers, machine-guns and explosive charges back in WW2. They did not have much success. More recently, Russia used Uran-9 unmanned ground vehicles in Syria. These are small, remote-controlled tanks armed with an automatic cannon and missiles, which also performed badly.
The Russian Uran-9 unmanned combat ground vehicle at a military show. The armed robot performed badly in Syria.Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS
“It failed on multiple levels and taught MOD [the Russian Ministry of Defence] a very valuable lesson about UGV development and fielding,” Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian unmanned systems, and adviser to both the CNA and CNAS, told Forbes.
The Uran-9s encountered many problems, but the developers claim to have learned from the combat testing and corrected the faults.
Interestingly enough, the new National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence singles out this Russian deployment of armed robots in Syria for criticism:
“Russia in particular has historically demonstrated a willingness to deploy risky and under-tested weapon systems, and it has deployed poorly performing unmanned ground vehicles with limited autonomous functionalities in combat in Syria.”
This is cited as evidence that even if the U.S. holds back in the development of autonomous weapons, Russia will surge ahead. The Uran-9 is hardly an autonomous killing machine though; one of the biggest problems was the fragility of communication with its human controller.
In principle, a remote weapon station is no more sinister on a robot than it is on top of a Hummer. Putting it on an unmanned vehicle simply adds more distance. And in principle, an armed ground robot is no different to an armed drone. However, the public, and the media, may not see it that way. Which is perhaps why SOCOM prefer to be non-committal about whether they are or are not fielding armed robots.