This has proven a much more productive approach to the US military’s evaluation of TALOS (aka the ‘Ironman Suit’), which augmented humans to do more, but never really got traction due to battery power issues, however continues to be improved.
As the ‘drums of war’ beat close to Australian shores, new technologies are an extension of the trend of increasing use of robotics on the battlefield, with war becoming a more robot-heavy, faster and deadlier affair.
Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are an example of technology being used as troop gear carriers/mules or manned/unmanned sentries for machine guns.
Beneath the waves, underwater vehicles (UUVs) are being used not just to patrol perimeters and inspect locations, but to stun enemy divers or even attach limpet mines to hulls of ships.
Above this, unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) ride the water surface and are successors of a long-established naval attack technology of using unmanned boats (often with explosive charges) to crash into enemy ships and naval bases.
In the skies, flying drones (UAVs), ranging from small quadcopters all the way to full-sized unmanned airplane or rotary wing vehicles that are able to carry wide variety of payloads and sensors, and controlled from the ground, air or sea platforms.
Hybrids of these – able to fly, crawl and dive – are coming too.
And these technologies come with swarming capabilities, whereby the swarms can act autonomously, taking controller-agent roles of having multiple drones following a single or multiple ‘master drone’ instructions, and then swapping if the master drone is taken out of action.
Autonomy, whereby these robots are either aided by Artificial Intelligence (AI), or fully AI-controlled, are also on foot. Chinese and Turkish drone manufacturers have reportedly started selling drones with fully autonomous hard kill capabilities, reigniting debates around ethics and the level of human control needed when firing.
So what does this all mean for Australia’s defence strategy?
Large and expensive assets such as submarines, manned aircraft, and tanks are highly prized and relatively easy-to-spot targets for an enemy. They still carry value and have their place, especially if equipped with a nuclear deterrent, for example for naval assets, in an era where larger regional superpowers have emerging ambitions and easily dwarf Australia’s military in size.
Despite this, these kinds of assets still have a major influence on today’s purchasing decisions. For example, the Australian Government allocated almost $2 billion to buy slightly used M1A2 Abrams tanks from the US in the current budget (with M1A3 still on the drawing board for over 10 years). Australia has not used tanks since the Vietnam War (they did not make an appearance in Iraq or Afghanistan), and given its maritime location, probably never will again. Why not spend that money on robotics instead
Smaller distributed robotic forces offer more versatility in deployment, and are more cost effective. They’re also faster to bring into service and cheaper and easier to upgrade. We are moving towards a reality where a billion-dollar Collins-class submarine could be killed using $50,000 underwater drones that swarm the sub, carrying attached explosives.
Another argument is an ‘insurgent’ strategy – how do we plan for an unthinkable world where we may face a head-on war, and face the prospects of foreign occupation. Our force needs to be equipped and trained in such insurgency warfare, which Australian large land mass and an often-challenging environment act in support of. A number of countries have previously successfully fought insurgent campaigns, such as Taliban in the Middle East. This sort of asymmetric war benefits from high tech equipment such as robotics, not large expensive assets that will either be destroyed or captured in the initial head-on conflict.
Lastly, robotic warfare generally means less human toll, both on the soldiers and the civilians, as wars become more precise, and with less humans on the front lines.
As a consequence of these factors, we require more investment in robotic offensive and defensive capability such as counter-drones across land, air and sea – from R&D moonshot projects to more advanced prototype phases and deployed assets.
We need to train with these assets to make the technology more mature and get our servicemen and women more comfortable with it.
While the US has been moving in this direction for some time, the sheer scale of the US military makes lessons difficult to replicate in Australia. However the UK military strategy of aggressively moving to robotics is far more applicable down under; in fact, British Army General, Nick Carter, recently indicated a quarter of the UK’s Army could comprise robots by the 2030s.
Keeping with the post-Budget ‘build Australia back better’ theme, we also need to design and build as much of this as possible in Australia. We need increased learning and technology transfer based on global best practices in the defence tech/robotics space.
A bunch of foreign made robotic dogs running around won’t deliver the skills and capabilities we need to drive our economy and military prowess, cute and all as they are.