Unmanned weapon systems are no longer sci-fi

Machine guns rattle and tracer ammunition flash over a military training ground in Lithuania. As the blue powder fumes slowly dissipate, four unmanned tracked vehicles drive out of their dug-in positions. Driven at high speed and silently by an electric motor, they choose a new position. Seeing soldiers involuntarily take a step back when such a robot, armed with a heavy machine gun, whizzes by nearby.

Combat robots are no longer science fiction. Unmanned aircraft or drones play an increasingly important role in the air, and unmanned weapon systems have also appeared at sea – see the latest attack by Ukrainian drone boats near Sevastopol. On the ground, the debut of unmanned systems seems to be a matter of a few years. These combat robots – soldiers call them Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) – have grown out of research laboratories.

The Dutch branch in Lithuania, which is part of the long-standing NATO mission, has in recent months gained experience with armed tracked vehicles from the Estonian company Milrem Robotics. The Netherlands is the first western country to test combat robots under operational conditions. They see the potential of the Royal Netherlands Army: to carry out dangerous work at a distance and as an answer to the severe shortage of personnel.

Although the Armed Forces have billions to spend in the coming years, the number of vacancies still hovers around 9,000. This is one of the reasons why Minister Kajsa Ollogren (Defence, D66) has decided not to heavy infantry brigade – despite a strong appeal from NATO to do so.

But how relevant are tanks and armored vehicles on the battlefield of the future? In Ukraine, the Russian T-72s have no chance against accurate Ukrainian artillery fire, which is corrected from the air by cheap hobby drones that you can order on Amazon. With the same quadcopters, you can also throw a mortar shell into a Russian trench with terrible accuracy. Improvisation, responding to new technology – it is becoming increasingly important, says Colonel Alain Schoonderbeek, head of innovations in the army. The defense of the future must already now gain experience with future applications. “We used to buy the things first, then we developed a doctrine of how to use them, and then we trained our people. With the current pace of technological development, this is no longer possible,” says Schoonderbeek. “We have to to prepare our organization now for systems that will come to market in the future.”

Limburg Hunters

Captain Thom (he keeps his last name secret for security reasons) has been doing it in Lithuania in recent months. Today, his robots will defend a sector against an advancing enemy, an operation for which they normally need four Boxer armored vehicles (each with nine soldiers) at the 42. Bataljon Limburgse Jagers.

“Pretty unique,” says Thom proudly. But the young captain will not sweep the shortcomings under the carpet. He would have preferred to let the robots drive to the range on their own, but during exercises it was found that the UGVs can roll over on a slope – dangerous with a .50 machine gun and 500 live rounds.

In recent weeks, Captain Thom’s men have noticed that the Milrem caterpillars are wearing hard in the rough terrain. The image from the cameras leaves a lot to be desired and the battery life of the robots is still an issue. Because the operation takes place with a mix of military equipment and electronics from the civilian market, the connection between the operator and the robot sometimes lags. On the shooting range, each UGV is therefore accompanied by a safety officer who can press a red stop button at any time.

No, what we’re seeing is not a full-fledged weapon system, says Captain Thom: “We’re not pretending to be better than we are.” The demonstration is nonetheless impressive. On a giant screen, we can see what the UGV cameras see on the forecourt. A computer system translates the images into a map image, with red arrows pointing to the approaching enemy.

If the platoon commander wants to know more, an observation drone buzzes upwards – images from the sky now appear on the screen. The operators stare intently at the screens on their control panels with their thumb on the joystick. “Here Romeo,” crackles the radio. “We’re about to shoot.”

Stupid drones

Actually, Captain Thom explained, “robot” isn’t quite the right word. Robots are autonomous systems that perform a task independently. The UGVs are remote-controlled, but entirely by hand. Captain Thom points to the operators at the command post. “They’re the drivers. As long as they don’t push a button, nothing happens.”

But that is changing fast. artificial intelligence (AI) turns ‘dumb’ drones into self-thinking, autonomous weapon systems that make split-second life-and-death decisions. Some experts speak of a ‘third revolution’ in warfare, after the invention of gunpowder and the atomic bomb. The vision of self-reflection killing robots has sparked heated debates among lawyers and ethicists for a few years now.

The decision to shoot is still made by a human

However, the Dutch military in Lithuania are not happy with the expression. “A killer robot is a system that itself selects a target and reacts to it,” says Captain Artiom van den Broek, the Army’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) project officer. “We certainly don’t do that here.” According to him, the decision to shoot will always be taken by a soldier. In other areas, however, the line between machine and soldier blurs. Robots are becoming more and more autonomous – controlled by more powerful processors and machine learning systems.

In time, vehicles will be able to move independently, or combat robots will be able to conduct patrols autonomously. Sensors and AI then feed robots information about the target that the operator sees on their screen. The commander then decides whether to fire, the computer helps determine whether the approaching vehicle is ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’.

And that’s not all. When the UGVs have stopped firing, Captain Van den Broek makes a short presentation. A primitive map appears on the screen, where two swarms of dots (the red ones are the enemy) perform random patterns at first glance. But the computer can calculate millions of military scenarios in a fraction of a second and on and on trial and error the system becomes smarter. In the future, the digital strategist may be superior to a hundred generals combined. “By using artificial intelligence in decision-making processes, we can increase our chances in battle,” says Van den Broek. “For reasons of principle, we can decide not to do that. But what if our opponent developed it later?”

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