As both artificial intelligence and autonomous systems advance at an astonishing rate, scientists and military leaders alike are working through the complexities to determine the best ways of implementing them on the modern battlefield. The accelerating arms race in Artificial Intelligence and the diffusion of cheap, technologically advanced military systems among state and non-state actors, compel countries to adopt robotic and autonomous systems (RAS).
Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) highlights the physical (robotic) and cognitive (autonomous) aspects of these systems. RAS offers the possibility of a wide range of platforms—not just weapon systems—that can perform “dull, dangerous, and dirty” tasks—potentially reducing the risks to soldiers and possibly resulting in a generation of less expensive ground systems. China is attempting to become the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. Artificial intelligence is a national priority in China, whose government has established an Artificial Intelligence Innovative Platform. China’s military is already using some artificial intelligence technology, including the use of drones and military robotics that feature extensive autonomous capabilities.
In recent years, the Russian military has achieved major breakthroughs in the development of unmanned systems. Russian investments in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will help their soldiers counter the physical, cognitive, and operational challenges of urban warfare and perform better in future conflicts. In fact, Russia’s Military Industrial Committee has approved plans to derive 30% of Russia’s combat power from remote-controlled systems and platforms enabled by artificial intelligence by 2030. Russia is currently working on two tank-like combat systems referred to as Shturm (Storm) and Soratnik (Ally). According to the Russian defense manufacturer Kalashnikov, “Robot tanks do not need crews. Robots without human intervention will detect enemy weapons, destroy them, and issue target designations.” This certainly indicates Russia’s intent to develop unmanned combat systems without need for a human in the decision loop.
With near-peer adversaries aggressively pursuing RAS development, the US DoD is investing heavily in land robotics which are becoming ever more crucial for gaining overmatch in possible high-intensity conflict. These added investments in advanced technologies will increase Warfighter lethality, transform situational awareness and remove soldiers from dangerous situations. The U.S. 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, in describing DOD’s strategic approach, states: The Department will invest broadly in military application of autonomy, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, including rapid application of commercial breakthroughs, to gain competitive military advantages. In this regard, the Army and Marines are directed to pursue RAS and AI in support of the National Defense Strategy, but there are also more practical reasons why the Army and Marines might emphasize the development of RAS and AI.
In March 2017, the Army published its Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategy. The Army describes its RAS objectives as follows:
1. Increase situational awareness. Complex terrain and enemy countermeasures limit soldiers’ abilities to see and fight at the battalion level and below. Advancements in RAS allow for persistent surveillance and reconnaissance over wide areas, often going where manned systems cannot, thereby increasing standoff distances, survivability and reaction time for commanders.
2. Lighten the soldiers’ physical and cognitive workloads. Excessive equipment requirements reduce stamina and endurance. Autonomous systems lighten equipment loads and increase soldier speed, mobility, stamina and effectiveness. Vast amounts of information overload leaders’ ability to make decisions. RAS facilitate mission command by collecting, organizing, and prioritizing data to facilitate decision-making as well as improving tactical mobility while reducing cyber, electronic, and physical signatures.
3. Sustain the force with increased distribution, throughput, and efficiency. Logistics distribution is resource intensive. Soldiers and teams become vulnerable at the end of extended supply lines. Air and ground unmanned systems and autonomy-based capabilities enhance logistics at every stage of supply movement to the most forward tactical resupply points. RAS move materiel to the most urgent points of need and provide options for Army logistics distribution to the warfighter.
4. Facilitate movement and maneuver. Joint combined arms maneuver in the 21st century requires ready ground combat forces capable of outmaneuvering adversaries physically and cognitively in all domains. Through credible forward presence and resilient battle formations, future ground forces integrate and synchronize joint, interorganizational, and multinational capabilities to create temporary windows of superiority across multiple domains; seize, retain, and exploit the initiative; and achieve military objectives. Investments in Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities allows future enemies to engage Army forces earlier and at greater distances. In addition, adversaries will look to emplace obstacles to threaten movement and maneuver across extended avenues of advance. As a counter, Army forces employ RAS to extend the depth of the area of operations and to provide responses to enemy action. RAS expand the time and space at which Army forces can operate and improve the ability to overcome obstacles.
5. Protect the force. The congested and contested future operational environment (OE) increases soldiers’ exposure to hazardous situations. RAS technologies will enhance soldiers’ survivability by providing greater standoff distance from enemy formations, rockets, artillery, and mortars as well as placing less soldiers at risk during convoy operations.
Of the five capability objectives, the priority in the near-term is to increase situational awareness and lighten the Soldier’s physical load, which will improve combat effectiveness of dismounted units. In the midterm, the priority is to improve sustainment and soldier protection with automated convoy operations. The autonomous technology within automated convoy operations will transfer to many other future initiatives such as unmanned combat vehicles. In the far-term, the priority is to facilitate maneuver with unmanned combat vehicles, which will increase capabilities within brigade combat teams.
Autonomy, Artificial intelligence, and Common control
Achieving the five capability objectives and integrating RAS into existing formations will take time and calls for an evolutionary approach.
Over the next twenty five years, three technology advancements are essential to allow the fastest, and cost effective achievement of the RAS capability objectives: autonomy, artificial intelligence, and common control. Autonomy is the level of independence that humans grant a system to execute a given task in a stated environment. It is based on a combination of sensors and advanced computing to navigate this environment and the software sophistication necessary for machine decision-making.
Enhanced autonomy capabilities will mean fewer Soldiers are required for robot control as RAS perform dull, dirty and dangerous tasks on their own. Higher levels of autonomy will permit RAS to perform higher risk missions for longer duration, expand operational depth and standoff distance, and allow Soldiers to focus on those missions humans do best.
The process to improve RAS autonomy takes a progressive approach that begins with tethered systems, followed by wireless remote control, teleoperation, semi-autonomous functions, and then fully autonomous systems. In 2016, most UGS and UAS operate between teleoperation and semiautonomy. Because some autonomous capabilities advance and others lag behind due to technological constraints, the Army must consider optionally-manned systems that can use human operators for specific, complex, mission-critical tasks until autonomy matures.
The Army seeks to maintain human control over all autonomous systems. It will achieve this goal by keeping humans “in-the-loop or on-the-loop” of current and future RAS. Humans in-the-loop will allow final decisions to be determined by a human operator on whether to proceed further in an activity; one example is lethal systems. Humans on-the-loop will allow humans to intervene in RAS systems such as automated vehicles. In both cases, the Army’s aim is to have human judgement making critical decisions when employing autonomous systems.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the capability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence such as perception, conversation, and decision-making. Advances in AI are making it possible to cede to machines many tasks long regarded as impossible for machines to perform. AI will play a key role in RAS development as reasoning and learning in computers evolves. AI will improve the ability for RAS to operate independently in tasks such as off-road driving and analyzing and managing mass amounts of data for simplified human decision-making.
Increasingly, AI will account for operational factors such as mission parameters, rules of engagement, and detailed terrain analysis. As human-machine collaboration matures, AI will contribute to faster and improved decision-making in five areas: identifying strategic indications and warnings; advancing narratives and countering adversarial propaganda; supporting operational/campaign-level decision-making; enabling leaders to employ “mixed” manned/unmanned formations; and enhancing the conduct of specific defensive missions in which functions of speed, amount of information, and synchronization might overwhelm human decisionmaking.
Common control is the ability for one common software package to control an array of ground and air systems, and is critical for maximizing management of multiple and varied RAS. Common control will allow one Soldier to control multiple robots with one controller, reducing physical and cognitive burdens on Soldiers operating the system. Common control also overcomes operational limitations (data sharing / encryption / range / transferring control of platforms and payloads), while realizing cost savings and simplifying sustainment through
compatible display units, batteries, and radios.
In addition to advancements of autonomy, AI and common control, the Army requires government-owned architecture, interoperability, common platforms, and modular payloads as necessary additional software and hardware to realize the following benefits:
-Cost-savings with common RAS platforms means more funds to purchase more robots.
-Faster upgrades to support innovation and accelerated capability development.
-Component/payload modularity to facilitate RAS integration in different mission sets. For example, in one mission a medium UGS can be used to carry extra supplies, and in the next mission employ a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) sensor payload, while in a third mission, it may emplace a surveillance asset.
Finally, cyber protection and mission assurance are critical for effective RAS development and employment. Mission assurance, the actions taken to achieve mission resiliency and ensure the continuation of mission essential functions and assets allowed under all conditions and across the spectrum of threats and hazards, allows units to connect to a defended network, resulting in a much higher probability of mission success. The Army must improve cyber protection and mission assurance; future RAS will rely on cyber capabilities and data links across cyberspace and the elector-magnetic spectrum.
RAS Strategy Execution
Executing this strategy will require Army leaders to think clearly about how to integrate RAS into operations; learn through rigorous experimentation; analyze what we learn to focus and prioritize efforts; and implement RAS-enabled concepts across doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy.
Success depends on Army leaders sharing a common vision and collaborating to determine how best to integrate RAS into joint operations. Delivering RAS capabilities will not be easy. And because RAS is a relatively new range of capabilities, execution will require Army leaders
to be open to new ideas and encourage bottom-up learning from Soldiers and units in experimentation and the Army’s warfighting assessments.
Maj. Mike Dvorak, robotics branch chief at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, said the service is now working on an execution strategy that will “lay [out] the specific details of how we’re going to get the capabilities.” The document is being produced by the Maneuver Center of Excellence and ARCIC, he said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference in Springfield, Virginia.
Maj. John George, the Army’s director of force development, said the service also plans to direct funding to meet the priorities outlined in the robotics and autonomous systems strategy. “Funds are going to accelerate development through demonstrations, experimentations and prototyping,” he said. The Army will use a “buy, try and acquire and decide approach.”
Its robotics portfolio has already seen an increase in recent years, he noted. From fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2019, research, development test evaluation and procurement funding went from $120 million to about $320 million in the most recent budget request, he said. Concurrently, science and technology investments in this category grew from $77 million to $105 million, he noted.
“The resources that we’re going to put in place are going to speed delivery of cutting-edge technologies to the warfighter by implementing our open architecture, the modularity strategy with common chassis for man-transportable robotic systems increment 2, common robotic system-individual and common robotic system-heavy,” he said.
RAS and AI advances in the private sector in areas such as transportation, logistics, manufacturing, health care, and engineering also provide oppurtunity to be readily adapted by the military and ground forces.
Army has already asked commercial partners to work towards vehicles with the capability to be remotely manned “right out of the box”, “We define that as a man fighting vehicle that primarily operates with a crew but does have the ability to conduct remotely controlled operations while the crew is off platform,” Colonel Gerald (Andy) Boston explains. “These could be executed from someone in a dismounted position or from another vehicle. We’d like it to be remote controlled using non-physical tethers, off-platform control through sensors, driving technology, fire control, imagery, data transfer and so forth. So yes, we are very much looking to the Bradly replacement to have an optionally-manned component to it right up front.”
With the inherent shortfalls of autonomous technology, paired with the limitations of DoDD 3000.09, the U.S. military’s implementation of offensive oriented autonomous systems will likely be slower and more deliberate in comparison with defensive autonomous systems due to the lengthy approval process they have to undergo. Those warfighting functions of ground combat where U.S. ground forces employ direct and indirect firepower upon an enemy target, such as fires and maneuver, require human judgment to validate the selected target.
However, development of autonomous vehicles supporting just the movement aspect of maneuver and sustainment and force protection is one area where the U.S. military can maximize the non-lethal advantages of autonomous systems in the near-term. The U.S. military is leaning as far forward as possible in the areas of non-lethal unattended ground systems unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
In terms of movement and maneuver, many of the platforms being tested, such as Lockheed Martin’s Autonomous Mobility Applique System (AMAS), autonomous fueling trucks, and Joint Precision Airdrop Systems (JPADs), have the capability to lighten soldiers’ physical loads and increase their mobility and effectiveness. This is especially important for soldiers in light infantry units and soldiers executing dismounted operations for an extended number of days without resupply. For mounted and dismounted reconnaissance operations, unattended ground systems will help minimize the number of reconnaissance troops positioned forward of the front-line trace of the main ground forces.
Furthermore, unattended ground systems can remain forward deployed in positions for longer durations and reconnoiter more ground. In terms of sustainment, unattended ground systems will likely have the capability to reduce the human risks to combat logistics, moving supplies to the most forward supply points with minimum human oversight required. Unattended ground systems will likely provide commanders additional options for logistics distribution along with additional planning options for casualty evaluation and medical evacuation planning. The U.S. Army is prioritizing off-road autonomous technology so much for its mid-term and long-term goals that as off-road technology matures, it will not wait for perfection in off-road navigation and tactical informational decision-making software before fielding autonomous prototypes for testing.
The U.S. military has already begun to incorporate artificial intelligence into its operations. However, the use of autonomous machines in the U.S. could be said to be quite conservative in comparison to its adversaries. Although artificial intelligence assists in providing risk predictions and improving time available to react to events, some believe artificial intelligence and autonomous systems will drastically distance humans from a direct combat role. Other nations, notably peer competitors Russia and China, are aggressively pursuing RAS and AI for military use to include lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS)—that could be used against U.S. forces raising considerations about the U.S. military’s response.
The U.S. military is currently implementing a variety of semi-autonomous systems into the battlefield environment from various intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) collection platforms, such as Predator and Reaper, to unattended ground systems (UGS) and various types of battlefield drones. While each of these systems are classified as semi-autonomous systems—with humans controlling their actions and analyzing their collected data—they are becoming force multipliers that may reduce troop numbers on the battlefield while extending the U.S. military’s operational reach in scope and duration.
The US Army Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Strategy describes how the Army will integrate new technologies into future organizations to help ensure overmatch against increasingly capable enemies. Consistent with the 2015 National Military Strategy, the RAS Strategy describes how the Army will use human-machine collaboration to meet the JCS Chairman’s goal of increasing operational options for Joint Force commanders, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.
Army through RAS is addressing three compelling challenges: 1) increased speed of adversary actions, including greater standoff distances; 2) increased use of RAS by adversaries; and 3) increased congestion in dense urban environments where communications will be stretched to the breaking point. Pursuing RAS allows Army Soldiers and teams to defeat capable enemies and maintain overmatch across five capability
objectives: increase situational awareness; lighten the warfighters’ physical and cognitive workloads; sustain the force with increased distribution, throughput, and efficiency; facilitate movement and maneuver; and increase force protection.
Autonomy is a key technology, critical to the future fleet of fighting vehicles. Keeping soldiers safe continues to be the main reason the military enlists unmanned vehicles into its ranks, when driving into a combat zone especially for resupply missions. According to US DOD 52 percent of all battlefield casualties are caused when soldiers are delivering fuel, food or other supplies. Driverless technology could reduce the risk of injury or death for convoys traveling through territory with hidden roadside bombs, said Bernard Thiesen, technical manager for Autonomous Mobility Applique Systems at TARDEC. The Army believes the self-driving vehicles could be ideal during humanitarian relief missions in a natural disaster or for resupplying troops in the field, recognizing opportunities for cost savings and fewer crashes.
US Army is further interested in Vehicle swarms technology. The service has been pursuing the idea of having unmanned vehicles incorporated into its convoys for more than a decade, with the goal of reducing the number of casualties associated with ground resupply missions. In Oct 2017, Auburn University and the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) conducted a live demonstration of autonomous vehicle technology traveling across the border between the U.S. and Canada. The capabilities of truck platoons were showcased traveling down Interstate 69, going east across the Blue Water Bridge connecting Port Huron with Ontario before returning to the U.S.
RAS capabilities will also allow future Army forces to conduct operations consistent with the concept of multi-domain battle, projecting power outward from land into maritime, space, and cyberspace domains to preserve Joint Force freedom of movement and action. RAS-enabled teams give leaders time and space to make decisions that achieve tactical and operational gains.
Battlefield experts considering M1 Abrams main battle tank for command and control of unmanned vehicles
The U.S. Army carried out concept modeling and early design work for a new mobile, lethal, future lightweight tank platform able to detect and destroy a wider range of targets from farther distances, cross bridges, incinerate drones with lasers and destroy incoming enemy artillery fire—all for the 2030s and beyond.
The new tank will emerge after the Army first fields its M-1A2 SEP v4 upgraded Abrams tank in the 2020s, a more lethal Abrams variant with 3rd Generation Forward Looking Infrared Sensors for greater targeting range and resolution and more lethal advanced multi-purpose—or AMP—ammunition combining many rounds into a single 120-millimeter round. The SEP v4 variant, slated to being testing in 2021, will also include new laser rangefinder technology, color cameras, integrated on-board networks, new slip-rings, advanced meteorological sensors, ammunition data links and laser warning receivers.
The new tank will be specifically engineered with additional space for automotive systems, people and ammunition. As computer algorithms rapidly advance to allow for greater levels of autonomy, the Abrams tank will be able to control nearby drones using its own on-board command and control networking, service developers said. Unmanned “wing-man” type drones could fortify attacking ground forces by firing weapons, testing enemy defenses, carrying suppliers or performing forward reconnaissance and reconnaissance missions while manned-crews remained back at safer distances. Bassett, and developers with General Dynamics Land Systems, specifically said that this kind of autonomy was already being worked on for current and future tanks.
The Army is also examining how much future robotics and autonomous systems will cost, which ones will take priority, the technical readiness of desired systems, and program information, Dvorak said. It is likely that the push to develop a robotic combat vehicle will encompass one program, whereas efforts for small unmanned aerial systems will require establishing multiple programs, he added.
The integration of RAS will help future Army forces, operating as part of Joint teams, to defeat enemy organizations, control terrain, secure populations, and consolidate gains. The Army RAS Strategy directs actions necessary to achieve unity of effort in the integration of ground and aerial RAS capabilities into Army organizations. Effective integration of RAS improves U.S. forces’ ability to maintain overmatch and renders an enemy unable to respond effectively.
The Army must pursue RAS capabilities with urgency because adversaries are developing and employing a broad range of advanced RAS technologies as well as employing new tactics to disrupt U.S. military strengths and exploit perceived weaknesses. RAS are increasingly important to ensuring freedom of maneuver and mission accomplishment with the least possible risk to Soldiers. Pursuing RAS allows the Army to improve the combat effectiveness of the future force. Development of RAS solutions within Army formations emphasizes human-machine collaboration. Integrated human-machine teams will allow forces to learn, adapt, fight and win under uncertain situations.
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