The war in Ukraine has become the largest testing ground for AI-powered autonomous and unmanned vehicles in history. While the use of military robots is nothing new – World War II saw the birth of remote-controlled war machines and the US did not deploy fully autonomous attack drones until 2020 – what we are seeing in Ukraine is the proliferation of a new class of combat vehicle.
This article discusses the “killer robot” technology used by both sides in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Our main conclusion is that the “killer” part of “killer robots” does not apply here. Read on to find out why.
Unmanned versus autonomous
This war represents the first use of the modern class of unmanned aerial vehicles and automated weapon platforms in a protracted invasion involving forces with relatively similar technology. While the Russian military appears superior to Ukraine’s on paper, the two sides have deployed forces with similar capabilities. Compared to the forces Russia faced during its involvement in the Syrian civil war or, for example, the US during the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, what is currently happening fundamentally in Ukraine shows a more parallel battleground.
However, it is important to state that this is not a war fought by machines. It is unlikely that autonomous or unmanned weapons and vehicles will have much of an impact in war simply because they are untested and currently unreliable.
Unmanned vehicles and autonomous vehicles are not necessarily the same thing. While almost all autonomous vehicles – those that can operate without human intervention – are unmanned, many unmanned vehicles can only be operated remotely by humans. Perhaps most importantly, many of these vehicles have never been tested in combat. This means they are used in “support” roles rather than as autonomous combat vehicles, even if they are designed for that.
But before we get into the hows and whys behind the use of military robots in modern warfare, we need to explain what kind of vehicles are currently in use. There are no “killer robots” in warfare. That is a collective term used to describe military vehicles, both autonomous and unmanned.
These include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs, another term for unmanned marine or aquatic vehicles).
So the first question we need to answer is why don’t we just turn the robots into killers and let them fight the war for us? You may be surprised to learn that the answer has very little to do with regulations or rules regarding the use of “killer robots.”
Simply put, armies have better things to do with their robots than just send fire down. That doesn’t mean they won’t be tested that way, they already are evidence that happened.
However, we’ve all seen that before. Using “killer robots” in warfare is now old-fashioned. The US has deployed drones in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as we reported here at TNWit even sent a Predator drone to autonomously kill an Iranian general.
What’s different in this war is the proliferation of UAVs and UGVs in combat support roles. We’ve seen drones and autonomous land vehicles in war before, but never on this scale. Both forces use unmanned vehicles to perform tasks that traditionally could not be done or required additional manpower. It’s also worth noting that they use equipment that is relatively untested, which explains why we don’t see either country deploying these units en masse.
A developing pot
Developing war technology is a tricky gamble. Despite the best warranties from the manufacturers, there’s just no way of knowing what could possibly go wrong until a particular technology sees actual use in the field.
We saw a good example of this paradigm in the Vietnam War the debut of the M-16 rifle. It was supposed to replace the trusty old M-14. But, as the first soldiers to use the new weapon tragically discovered, it was not fit for jungle use without modifications to the design and special training for the soldiers who would use it. Many soldiers were killed in the process.
That is one of the many reasons why a number of countries that have so far refused any direct involvement in the war are eager to send advanced robots and weapons to the Ukrainian government in the hopes of testing the capabilities of their technology without their own endanger soldiers. skin.
TNW caught up with Alex Stronell, a Land Platforms Analyst and UGV leader janes, the supplier of defense information. They explained that one of the more interesting things to note about the use of UGVs, particularly in the war in Ukraine, is the absence of certain designs that we might otherwise have expected.
“For example, a lot of attention has been paid to the Uran-9 … It certainly looks like a menacing vehicle, and it has been touted as the world’s most advanced combat UGV,” Stronell told us before adding, “However, I have not seen any evidence that the Russians have launched the Uran-9 in Ukraine, and this could be because it still needs further development.
On the other hand, Stronell previously wrote that Ukrainian armed forces will soon field the world’s largest complement of THeMIS UGVs (see the video below). That is exceptional when you consider that the country’s arsenal is largely borrowed from other countries.
Milremthe company that makes the THeMIS UGV, recently announced that the German Defense Ministry has ordered 14 of its vehicles to be sent to the Ukrainian Armed Forces for immediate use. According to Stronell, these vehicles will not be armed. They are equipped for casualty evacuation and for finding and removing land mines and similar devices.
But it’s also safe to say that the troops on the ground will find another use for it. As anyone who’s ever deployed to a combat zone can tell you, space is at a premium and there’s no point in carrying more than you can carry.
However, the THeMIS is equipped with Milrem’s “Intelligence Function Kit”, which includes the “follow me” capability. This means it would make an excellent battle mule to carry ammunition and other equipment. And there’s certainly nothing stopping anyone from re-equipping the THeMIS with combat modules or simply attaching a homemade autonomous weapon system to it.
As much as the world fears the dawn of the era of killer robots in warfare, the current technology just isn’t there yet. Stronell dismissed the idea that a dozen UGVs, for example, could be equipped as killer surveillance robots that could be deployed in the defense of strategic points. Instead, he described a hybrid man/machine paradigm referred to as “manned-unmanned teaming, or M-UMT”, in which, as described above, unmounted infantry enter the battlefield with machine support.
In the time since the M-16 was adopted en masse during an ongoing conflict, the world’s militaries have refined the methodology they use to deploy new technologies. Currently, the conflict in Ukraine is teaching us that autonomous vehicles are useful in support roles.
The simple fact is that we are already exceptionally good at killing each other when it comes to war. And it’s still cheaper to train a human to do everything a soldier needs to do than it is to build giant weapon platforms for every bullet we want to send down. The actual military need for “killer robots” is probably much lower than the average citizen would expect.
AI’s gifts when it comes to finding needles in haystacks, for example, make it the perfect recon unit, but soldiers have to do much more than identify the enemy and pull the trigger.
However, that is something that is sure to change as AI technology matures. Therefore, Stronell told us, other European countries are currently introducing autonomous weapons or have already done so.
In the Netherlands, for example, the Royal Netherlands Army engaged in training operations in Lithuania to test their own complement of THeMIS units in what they call a “pseudo-operational” theater. Due to the proximity of the war in Ukraine and its ongoing nature, nearby countries are able to conduct analogous military training operations based on up-to-date information about the ongoing conflict. Essentially, the rest of Europe is watching what Ukraine and Russia are doing with their robots and simulating war at home.
This represents an intel bonanza for the related technologies and there’s no telling how much this period of warfare will push things forward. We could see countless breakthroughs in both military and civilian artificial intelligence technology as the lessons learned from this war begin to filter out.
To illustrate this point, it should be mentioned that Russia has been eliminated a bounty of one million rubles (approximately €15,000) to anyone who captures a Milrem THeMIS unit from the battlefield in Ukraine. These types of bounties are not exactly uncommon during wartime, but the fact that this particular bounty was so publicized is a testament to how desperate Russia is to get its hands on the technology.
Eye for the future
It is clear that not only is the war in Ukraine not a place where we will see “killer robots” deployed en masse to overwhelm their fragile, human, hostile counterparts, but that such a scenario is highly unlikely in any form of modern warfare anyway.
However, when it comes to augmenting our current armed forces with UGVs or replacing manned air and surface reconnaissance vehicles with robots, military leaders are excited about the potential usefulness of AI. And what we see now in the war in Ukraine is the most likely way forward for technology.
That’s not to say the world doesn’t have to worry about killer robots or their development and proliferation through wartime use. We should definitely be concerned, because the Russian war in Ukraine has almost certainly eased the world’s inhibitions around the development of autonomous weapons.