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Monday, May 15, 2017

Robotics and autonomous/semi-autonomous technologies are advancing rapidly and many armies are exploring ways to take advantage of this nascent capability. If the U.S. Army wishes to gain and maintain dominance against potential adversaries, it will require employment of ground robotic and autonomous systems to close capability gaps and leverage technology overmatch. Today’s ground-based robotic and autonomous technologies could sufficiently enable and enhance current capabilities to close gaps associated with, but not limited to, reconnaissance in-depth, network extension and enhancement, and nonlethal tasks such as obscuration, deception and resupply.

As autonomy matures, robotic and autonomous systems (RAS) capabilities will grow at an even faster rate. Using these technologies on the ground to perform reconnaissance in-depth offers the ability to loiter persistently. If coupled with unmanned aerial systems, soldiers can enter previously inaccessible areas to perform persistent surveillance provided by a ground-based sensor. This additional sensor footprint inherently incurs additional network enhancements, which unmanned systems also can provide.

Ground RAS sensors must not only have secure methods to see, sense and report, but the unmanned nature of the capability requires a level of expendability should it be lost (to include not having sensitive cryptographic information). Ground RAS also can introduce an off-platform ability to transmit cyber emissions from multiple locations, thus deceiving, or at least lessening, the enemy’s ability to detect our electromagnetic activity and identify our locations, further increasing soldier survivability. This form of obscuration complements a more traditional approach of visual obscuration performed by unmanned smoke generators.

Unit Effectiveness Enhanced

Automated resupply, already proven in combat via aerial means, directly enhances unit effectiveness. On the ground, robotic and autonomous systems offer delivery of larger quantities but with more limits on accessibility.

From a standpoint of lethality, current directives dictate the design of autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems must allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of lethal force. Additionally, the same DoD directive states that the undersecretary of defense for policy; the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics; and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must approve use of RAS outside specific policies. Well within stated guidelines, this capability, augmented by heightened automation capability such as aided target recognition, will reduce the physical and cognitive load to the soldier and directly enhance individual and unit effectiveness. Without RAS implemented to the formations, technological overmatch leading to tactical dominance may no longer belong to the U.S. military.

Implementation of these technologies to the maneuver force requires simple and intuitive ways to make ground RAS enhance effectiveness by off-loading current cognitive load through reliable automation while reducing the current sustainment burden. Accomplishing sustainment-burden reduction through commonality and purpose-built platforms alleviates accounting for human factors and ultimately enhances effectiveness at drastically reduced weights. However, until technology allows for appropriate levels of autonomy and a framework exists for purpose-built solutions, the sustainment burden to incorporate RAS into formations may increase as near-term concepts in the hands of soldiers remain optionally staffed. Therefore, the addition of RAS in the near term may increase the workload of each person. In the mid- and far-term, increasing levels of autonomy will minimize the physical and cognitive load expected of our soldiers.

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At Fort Benning, Ga., soldiers remove ammunition and supplies from an unmanned Squad Mission Support System.
(Credit: U.S. Army)

Further implications of RAS in the formations include getting these platforms to the fight. Thus there is a constant requirement to study impacts across the entire spectrum of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and even policy as the Army explores implementing RAS at any level. Additionally, while more expensive and sophisticated RAS solutions similar to the Abrams Main Battle Tank or Bradley Fighting Vehicle could have commensurate attrition rates, some solutions could be expendable non-Class VII major end items.

Infrastructure Needs

Safe and effective integration of RAS for military applications requires a more robust infrastructure than current commercial efforts to develop self-driving cars. Unlike the structured environment of Western countries with robust cloud-capable networks, U.S. military application of ground RAS should expect ill-defined environments with a contested electromagnetic spectrum and adversaries actively attempting deception. Thus, any military RAS must be able to operate across the full range of military operations in such an environment.

A common robotics architecture and establishment of standards can yield longer-term cost savings through defined competition and allow for easier technology insertion through defined interfaces on a larger scale. The establishment of common architectures such as the Future Airborne Capability Environment and Vehicle Integration for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance/Electronic Warfare interoperability has proven difficult, and requires significant investments of time and resources, but ultimately makes incremental improvements easier and more manageable. This modular open-systems approach clearly establishes standards and prevents stovepiping that has commonly been the approach to RAS solutions to meet operational requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Essential Investment

How will implementing RAS solutions to brigade combat teams benefit the Army in the near, mid- and far terms, and what should the Army expect? In the near term, generally defined as within five years, RAS solutions likely will continue to increase sustainment burdens and increase cognitive loading. However, the Army, and all branches of the U.S. military, must make this essential investment of time and resources to garner valuable lessons learned in employment and user feedback.

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Unmanned vehicles like this one may be used on future battlefields to rescue wounded troops.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Stephen Baack)

As with any systems engineering challenge, success requires early involvement in system planning, total system impacts, and coordination of supporting efforts to ensure manned and unmanned RAS support the brigade combat team’s end state of increased effectiveness and reduced sustainment burden. Establishing a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command capability manager for the larger robotic community advocating at the requirement level for commonality, total system impacts to trades, informs and unifies the science and technology community toward common goals, and coordinates proper integration to the formations.

In the midterm, generally defined as 2025 to 2035, RAS must reduce in size, make investments for far-term sustainment-burden savings, and exhibit increasing levels of autonomy through developments in voice command technologies and aided cognition. Through successful testing and confirmation of autonomy under scrutiny of the safety community, trust and confidence in reliability of programming autonomous behavior coupled with early stages of artificial intelligence could foster off-platform lethality in an operationally relevant environment. Lessons learned from years of successful use of earlier sustainment burden increasing solutions will nurture requirement codification toward a purpose-built family of systems. During the midterm, the Army may start realizing sustainment-burden savings but not in great amounts. Concurrently, the Army should start realizing effectiveness increases, supporting a business-case analysis to further investments, driving down sustainment costs.

In the far term, generally 2035 and beyond, implementing ground RAS should objectively consider solutions that operate twice as effectively as a manned solution while exhibiting only half the comparable sustainment burden of a manned solution. Effectiveness, based on defined tables such as the gunnery skills tests, offers tangible metrics. Similarly, the Army must consider a composite or formation-level metric of effectiveness versus sustainment burden since material solutions will likely not stretch the cost-benefit spectrum both ways. Some solutions will emphasize effectiveness gains while others may only emphasize sustainment-burden savings. Therefore, determining brigade combat team effectiveness versus reduced sustainment burden may only be realized by calculating the composition of the brigade combat team rather than individual platforms. However, accomplishing seven-day semi-independent operations discussed in the Army’s latest Functional Concept for Movement and Maneuver requires tangible metrics to map out implementation.

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A Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle awaits launch at McGregor Range, N.M.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Sgt. Alexander Neely)

Identifying Capabilities

The Army must standardize metrics against which to measure RAS effectiveness and applicability to ground operations in the hands of soldiers during structured evaluations such as the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments, the Joint Warfighting Assessments and user demonstrations such as the Abrams Lethality Enabler. Once the Army identifies specific RAS capabilities as significantly increasing combat effectiveness in brigade combat teams and reducing the sustainment burden, material developers and formation managers will consider changes across doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy, to include tables of organization and equipment.

Lastly, output from structured evaluations must inform and influence investment decisions. Once the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System and the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution cycle converge on RAS implementation, the Defense Acquisition System can materially develop and formally integrate operationally effective and cost-effective RAS technologies into brigade combat teams.

Accomplishing a more effective formation with a commensurate sustainment tail that supports the Functional Concept for Movement and Maneuver semi-independent concept requires standardization of metrics to assess formation effectiveness versus sustainment burden, advancing battlefield networks through hardening and extending, defining and enforcing a common-ground robotics architecture, and aligning requirements and resources to properly enable material developers to equip our forces. In doing so, the Army will maintain technological overmatch and tactical dominance on any of tomorrow’s battlefields.