I get really annoyed when clueless people complain about “drone killings.” Some of them think it’s immoral. Others think it’s actually illegal. Wrong, on both counts. There is no moral difference whatsoever between a pilot launching a missile from the cockpit of an attack plane and a pilot launching a missile from a trailer outside Vegas. As for the legality, it’s not actually against the law to kill the enemy. I might share some of these concerns if the DoD was unleashing Terminator-style autonomous systems that hunted out and engaged targets without human intervention, but that’s probably quite a ways off. The technology is borderline achievable right now but it would be a brave politician who agreed to the deployment of something like that. Unfortunately the last brave politicians I remember were Thatcher and Reagan.
Anyway, I don’t like the opinions of people who get outraged by “drones.” What’s my own opinion? I think they’re awesome. Remotely operated vehicles, and even autonomous ones, have huge potential to protect our soldiers’ lives and help them fight more effectively. There is no way we should throw away this potential because sandal-wearing people who knit their own yoghurt have watched too many killer robot movies.
The life-saving abilities of robots make them attractive both to front-line troops and risk-averse politicians. Even flying a modern jet against a low-tech opposition, close air support isn’t what anyone could call safe. A lucky AK round in the wrong place, or even a badly timed system failure, and you have a dead or captured pilot. When you hand CAS off to a Predator or Reaper, however, the most you’re going to lose is the vehicle itself. The pilot is safely out of harm’s way in Nevada.
With the prevalence of IEDs in current operations, robots have also played a big part in the counter-IED effort. The British Army has been using the Wheelbarrow series against terrorist bombs since 1972 and the USA now has its own systems, including the iRobot range. Bomb disposal is dangerous enough at the best of times, but it’s a lot easier when you can send out a robot equipped with high-resolution cameras and a remotely fired disruptor.
Useful as they are at minimising risk, the main use for unmanned vehicles is reconnaissance. The persistence and stealth of large UAVs like Global Hawk makes them outstanding intelligence gathering tools, but they’re also trickling down to the tactical level. Small systems like the Desert Hawk and RQ-11B Raven are basically just model aircraft with an electric motor, 4-5 foot wingspan and a small sensor package. They can be easily manpacked and assembled in the field, but can range out to ten miles from the launch point. That’s a formidable capability to have at company level. In the near future even smaller UAVs will probably be available to platoons, sections or even individual soldiers. Capabilities will decrease as size drops, but it doesn’t take a lot to give a massive advantage. A stealthy, pocket-sized vehicle that could carry a camera out to 500 yards would be extremely useful to the infantryman.
As well as unmanned aircraft, ground-based reconnaissance robots are now being evaluated. The TALON SWORDS is basically an armed Wheelbarrow that carries a sensor package and a weapon – options include an M249, Barrett M82 or a grenade launcher. Three have been trialled in Iraq. That’s quite a large system, but a smaller version carrying a camera would provide a more persistent observation capability than a small UAV. Expect to see ultra-compact tracked or wheeled robots enter service at platoon level over the next decade.
Military robots may upset the pacifist crowd but they’re a valuable tool across the full spectrum of warfare. In fact, by improving reconnaissance capabilities, and allowing engagements to be calmly handled by someone who isn’t pulling high-G turns while being shot at, they actually make war more humane and reduce the risk of collateral damage. UAVs and their ground-based counterparts are here to stay, and I think that’s a very good thing.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.