High Time for Ground Robotics

Robotic capabilities are already being utilized in the air and at sea for various missions. It is high time for robotics to be used in the ground theater, too, as the need for it on the battlefield will grow even more acute in the future

Photo: IAI

Land warfare has not ceased to exist nor is it likely to become extinct at any time. On land, where the friction is much more intense and this trend is only intensifying, it was only natural that, over time, unmanned platforms would be found as elements that complement the combat capabilities and reduce the severity of the risk and the intensity of the friction at the extreme ends of the range, but this has never happened. This issue is not as much a matter of technological maturity as it is a matter of conceptual maturity. The problem, in my view, is that of all places, it is on the land battlefield, where the friction is at its most intense and the risk is at its most severe danger that humans refuse to relinquish "control" and delegate it to machines (robots) – an inherent paradox.

In the air and at sea, unlike the ground theater, dramatic changes have taken place in the field of robotics over the last decade. I would say that air and space are currently ahead of the sea and its depths, but in both media, various types of unmanned platforms have occupied pride of place in strike missions, defensive missions (including routine security operations) and in intelligence collection and interrogation missions.

Moreover, in the present era, where confrontations take place between states on one side and organizations on the other side, the organizations do their best to drag the states to points of friction where the organizations can offset the inherent advantages of the state and create combat circumstances that are less favorable, less "convenient" to the state side. The less convenient circumstances produce situations where the risk faced by the warfighters becomes more severe and their chances of accomplishing their missions successfully decline.

There are several ways to deal with this abstract equation. One of these ways is to employ unmanned platforms, not in the selective, "boutique" manner most users seem to prefer, but rather in line with a concept where the unmanned platforms employed on the ground are an organic element of the fighting force (regardless of the organizational mix). One thing is abundantly clear: the unmanned platforms are intended to complement/enhance the combat capabilities at the extreme ends of the range and at the points of maximum risk.

Some proportions: IDF acquired robotic platforms for land warfare operations only as late as 1995, during their prolonged stay in Lebanon and in the context of dealing with what had evolved, back then, into 'explosive charge scenes'. This acquisition was intended to minimize the risks and significantly improve the chances of accomplishing the mission safely. Obviously, I do not compare the reality of the routine security operations of those days with the present situation, but the principle is similar. Moreover, in the present era, most confrontations between organizations and states take place in populated areas: villages, towns and cities, as well as in the densely afforested and heavily fortified areas which are a primary characteristic that reflects the enormity of the challenge. The common characteristic of all of the above environments is density, an extensive range of threats from all ranges: small arms, snipers, antitank weapons, explosive charges, booby-traps and other explosive obstacles, and yes – the subterranean medium is also included in the threat arsenal.

The majority of ground forces are required to dominate and capture territories in order to accomplish the missions assigned to them. In all of those operational scenarios, they are required to "negotiate" obstacle or deal with stand-off threats, opposite which the state will often find it difficult to fully utilize its capabilities – and that is where the opponent aspires to drag us to. Now, imagine a situation where every ground force operating in and around populated areas includes, as an organic element, unmanned platforms in several versions for a range of missions. These platforms are fully controlled by the warfighters and their function is to serve as an advance guard of sorts, capable of securing the main force and participating in combat missions, breaching open routes of advance through alleys and streets and overcoming obstacles (other than minefields in open terrain), handling the task of entering buildings, including breaching, combat and intelligence collection capabilities. These robots are not merely a "nice to have" element, they are not a local fantasy, but an operational necessity the need for which will only become more acute over time.

The problem is not technological. In the air, in outer space, on the surface of the sea and under the water there is a whole world of amazing solutions and technological capabilities while on land, of all places, where the need is acute, robotics are not used sufficiently. This situation is even more frustrating as the ground theater does not pose any significant technological problems. It provides a fertile ground for the manufacture of ground robotic systems capable of executing complete combat or combat support missions, just like their counterparts in the air and at sea. Today, complete strike missions are executed by unmanned airborne vehicles. The same goes for defensive missions, intelligence collection and interrogation missions in the air as well as at sea. On the ground, however, highly complex and challenging missions, in all respects, are still treated in a selective, "boutique" manner: a few robots for dealing with explosive charges, a few for the subterranean medium, a handful for local intelligence missions, limited routine security operations and possibly a few robots carried by infantry warfighters – too little, too late.

It is high time for a wake-up call with regard to ground robotics. It is time for "affirmative action" – for deciding, designing and implementing a comprehensive plan, based on a concept intended to provide the capabilities required in order to execute complete missions on the basis of unmanned platforms – on the ground: for the extreme ends of the range, for missions where the risk is severe, for places where the various organizations are trying, and, I regret to say, succeeding in offsetting the potential of the entire military – these are the places where the equation may be changed by using something different, including unmanned platforms.

At some point, when a systemic decision had been made and implementation has begun, it is my estimate that very soon they will start discussing the employment of complete robotic platoons. Admittedly, at this point this may sound presumptuous, even somewhat unrealistic, but it is not science fiction. The technologies have been available for a long time: some of them have been implemented in various civilian sectors while others were implemented by other armed forces around the world.

I believe that the Israeli defense establishment, headed by IDF and the other security organizations, are the true "engine" for the industries and the technological capabilities. The processes and benefits are maximized when the military has a need and it decides to take action, and the various industries, along with other technological companies, side with it. In situations of this type, the sky is the limit, and that applies to robotics, and such a decision should be made and acted upon, as the present battlefield and the future battlefield really need this capability and will need it even more acutely in the future. The renowned industries of the State of Israel (and the world) have been maintaining rare capabilities in this field, and we have excellent examples in the air and at sea. The time has come for the ground applications to hit the road and lead the entire pack.


Col. (res.) Atai Shelach began his military career in the IDF's Engineering Corps where he rose to command the elite combat engineering unit, Yahalom. His last post in the IDF was head of the Warfare Doctrine Department.

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