Terminator is just a movie, right? I am sure that is what the robot conspiracy theorists thought, as General Robert Cone, the head of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), declared that by 2030, a quarter of the US Army’s combat troops will be robots. Already today, the army is considering reducing the size of a Brigade Combat Team from 4,000 soldiers to 3,000, with robots and drones making up for the lost firepower. While not explicitly stated, a major motivation behind replacing humans with robots is that humans are expensive. Training, feeding, and supplying them while at war is pricey, and after the soldiers leave the service, there’s a lifetime of medical care to cover. In 2012, benefits for serving and retired members of the military comprised one-quarter of the Pentagon’s budget request.
To understand what Cone is proposing (besides robot soldiers), we need to understand two fundamental building blocks of the modern U.S. Army. The first is the nine-man squad, almost the smallest useful unit of force. For some purposes, it can be split into two smaller fire teams, but the Army designs vehicles with the nine-man squad in mind, and then writes doctrine for how these squads (some with, some without vehicles) will move and fight. The second building block worth knowing is the Brigade Combat Team. It’s the smallest large unit that can be sent into combat independently. If the Army can reduce number of people in squads, it can reduce the total manpower everywhere, and it can acquire vehicles that are both smaller and cheaper. In order to reduce manpower without reducing fighting ability, the Army will need to make sure that Brigades have everything they need to be just effective. In order for that to happen, Cone said the Army will “need to fundamentally change the nature of the force, and that would require a breakthrough in science and technology.” Cone expects this to happen by 2030 to 2040.
Moving from the adoption of new technologies to actually making doctrine that relies on the new technology would be a huge step for the military. Cone’s comments suggest that the military is at least willing to consider a day when soldier and robot will fight alongside one another. However, one does not have to wait until 2030 to see this collaboration even in our own backyard with U.S. Boarder Patrol.
This past Tuesday the U.S. Border Patrol unveiled one of its weapons in the war on drugs: Three wireless camera-equipped robots that let border agents remotely navigate the tunnels and storm drainage systems that smugglers use to sneak drugs, guns and people across the border. The agency is using the devices to keep agents out of harm’s way as many tunnels can be poorly built and possibly collapse and lack proper ventilation. The 12-pound robots also let agents navigate an underground labyrinth in a fraction of the time it would take an agent to explore the tunnel. And the devices can be used in tunnels and pipes where agents can’t fit.
“If we find a tunnel, we like to send a robot into clear the tunnel and identify any threats, contraband, potential people with weapons, and let the agent know ahead of time if the tunnel is structurally sound,” said Border Patrol Agent Kevin Hecht, an agency tunnel expert.
The Border Patrol held a demonstration of the devices Tuesday in the southern Arizona border city of Nogales, where dozens of crude tunnels have been discovered over the years. The tunnels discovered in Nogales have generally begun in Mexico and have tied into the Arizona city’s storm drainage system. Nearly 170 tunnels have been found nationwide since 1990, most along the Arizona and California border with Mexico. The tunnel robots have been in use by Border Patrol for several years. But the agency recently paid $109,000 for the three new cameras with money from an asset forfeiture fund, which comes from the seizure of property in criminal cases, including drug cases involving cartel members, the Border Patrol said.
These two examples illustrate not only the economic benefits from a budgetary perspective, but efficiencies that can be gained by greater robot-human cooperation. You may ask, ‘what happens when they become aware’, well I will leave that one to Schwarzenegger…