Robotization of the battlefield

 14. 10. 2023      Category: Cyber

For several decades now, advanced automation and robotics has not only focused on the industrial sphere, where it is a common part of the rationalisation of production processes. Its pace of development is constantly accelerating, dramatically affecting an expanding range of fields that were not until recently its domain, and this fact is of course not avoiding the military, where the implementation of artificial intelligence and robotics is experiencing an unprecedented boom. At the same time, the milestones achieved prove that the predictions made in the second half of the last century, which spoke of the full domination of the 21st century battlefield by technologically advanced robots, are coming true. 

The pace of implementation of robotics (and artificial intelligence) in NATO armies has been very conservative until recently, but the deterioration of the security situation in the world has forced its significant acceleration. NATO started to address the phenomenon of deploying autonomous military robots on a theoretical level in 2013 and five years later adopted major changes in the setting of the main lines of effort oriented towards autonomy, robotics, artificial intelligence and other areas related to the so-called EDTs (Emmerging Disruptive Technologies). It is becoming clear that achieving the desired military superiority on the 21st century battlefield will not be possible without advanced autonomous robots, especially because of the extremely fast reaction interval, which cannot be compensated even by the high numbers of their imaginary biological counterparts. Today, it is more than obvious that the massive development and deployment of intelligent robots represents a revolution in the transformation of our society to a new cultural and technological level and is the only path leading to the long-term survival of humans on Earth and in space.

Picture: The pace of implementation of robotics (and artificial intelligence) in NATO armies has been very conservative until recently, but the deterioration of the security situation in the world has forced its significant acceleration. (illustration) | Rheimetall
Picture: The pace of implementation of robotics (and artificial intelligence) in NATO armies has been very conservative until recently, but the deterioration of the security situation in the world has forced its significant acceleration. (illustration) | Rheinmetall

If we look at the military use of robotics, its main essence generally lies in taking on risky or time-critical tasks across the full breadth of the operational-tactical spectrum of activities. Although the development of advanced automation in the military has until recently been predominantly focused on reconnaissance, service/EOD assets, logistics systems, or the reaction-critical processes of target guidance of missiles or weapon systems, this trend is turning in favour of combat and multi-role systems with a high degree of autonomy. Recent developments in artificial intelligence and mechanical design of robotic components point to the enormous potential of machine capabilities that seem to have been cut from the pages of science fiction novels. The current state of the art has been significantly helped (two decades ago) by the conflicts in the Middle East, which triggered an unprecedented boom in automation and robotization of complex operational processes, accompanied by the massive deployment of unmanned assets, where these systems have demonstrated their clear advantage over conventional aviation in a wide range of applications. With that said, significant advances in military technology allow even small but technologically advanced states to advance their interests at the expense of large but unprepared ones, and very effectively compensate quantity with quality. Autonomous systems represent a revolution in the military that will change the nature and conduct of warfare, including a sharp increase in its dynamics. A historic revolution in militaries is "at the door" and those who fail to keep up will pay a heavy price.

Developments in NATO and the EU

NATO, as already mentioned, recognises the importance of all emerging and disruptive technologies - Emmerging Disruptive Technologies (EDTs), where robotics and artificial intelligence rank high and the main emphasis is on cooperation between private actors, the state and academic institutions. In particular, cooperation between Member States in sharing experiences and achieving standardisation and interoperability is a key aspect. At the last Summit, Member States' representatives agreed on two key measures to support the development of new and existing innovation capabilities and to ensure the integration of EDTs into Alliance capabilities in close cooperation with the private sector and academia. These are the Defence Innovation Accelerator for North Atlantic (DIANA) and the Innovation Fund. For the EU, the area of key future technologies is essentially the same as NATO. However, the security aspect is more in the form of an emphasis on achieving strategic autonomy and technological self-sufficiency in key areas. Given that the EU has realised the importance of robotics and AI somewhat later than, for example, the US and China, there are concerns that Europe may not catch up in the future, especially if this segment is not more systematically stimulated by the state. As private investment in these disruptive technologies has traditionally been more conservative (compared to the US and China), Europe is characterised by a fragmentation of national efforts with different approaches and many debates over the ethical and legislative aspects of AI, which do little to increase the momentum of military development.

Nevertheless, the EU's seriousness about autonomous robotic systems is evidenced by the many EDA/EDF project calls on autonomous robotics, where the most important ones include projects on medium and heavy unmanned ground vehicles (the so-called "unmanned ground vehicles"). These are primarily IMUGS (Integrated Modular Unmanned Ground Sytems) and CUGS (Combat Unmanned Ground Systems), which, with a combined budget of more than 60 million euro, represent major EU steps in this "dimension".

Ethical aspects

If we talk about the ethical aspects of military robotics, modern robotic systems, as we understand them today, are machines capable of evaluating sensory inputs and preparing plans for certain actions. These robotic systems can be equipped with weapon attachments or other accessories that they use to accomplish their stated goals. A certain amount of autonomous behaviour (i.e., not waiting for operator approval or input to perform individual operations) is assumed in the process of goal accomplishment, with the extent, quality and type of automation of the selected processes influencing the robot's characteristics according to the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) five-level scale. Military robots can be both combat robots and service robots, which are intended for carrying cargo or construction activities (e.g., building defensive positions), robots that disarm or lay mines, take weapons from soldiers who surrender, etc. Already much of the modern technology in use has some degree of automation (of routine processes), e.g. targeting on the move, obstacle detection and avoidance, etc. Similar capabilities are already commonly available in commercial systems, as we know, for example, in small drones that automatically stabilise, hold a position in space, or automatically move to a selected position or track a selected object. The benefits of such partial automation are indisputable and do not raise major ethical issues, especially if the automation is not associated with lethal functionality. This is not the case for fully autonomous robots (whether ground-based or moving in air, water or space), where these aspects cannot be avoided by the very nature of the system. From a 'macroethical' perspective, society is usually interested in whether the deployment of such robots will ultimately have a positive or negative impact. This may mean, for example, higher precision of interventions, lower impact on non-combatants compared to conventionally used technologies, lower damage to structures, military material, or on the contrary, hitting only military material without loss of life including combatants, lower cost of such an operation, only injuring or disarming combatants, lower probability of environmental damage, etc. On the other side of the imaginary spectrum is the concern about the loss of control over such machines, which in the end might not respect international humanitarian law and generally the rules of engagement (ROE) adopted by modern Western armies. From an ethical point of view, we are primarily interested in the ultimate consequences of the use of these autonomous robots, and if the intended goal is achieved, while achieving it more efficiently (than using conventional means) and following all established rules, we can consider the use of autonomous robots to be ethical (from the perspective of consequentialism). The assumption is that robots will be much better able than humans to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate goals, will not be influenced by emotions, and will not commit deliberate war crimes. There may also be benefits to society in that costly and often ineffective care for war veterans will be eliminated, family trauma will be eliminated, where often more than one family member does not return from war, and the functioning of the family, and thus society, is disrupted, and so on. Thus, if one (usually probably more) of these points is fulfilled, and if this point was intended as a goal and at the same time achieved more efficiently, or if the aforementioned positives outweigh the possible new negative impacts, we can consider the use of autonomous robots as ethical. Of course, there are several possible ethical approaches (attitudes) and each aspect will be described in turn in future articles.


As already hinted, it has been a great dream of man since time immemorial to create an intelligent machine that would replace human capabilities in their full spectrum, which, although it still seems to be difficult to achieve, there is a rapidly growing number of domains where robotics has already taken over most of the routine or even key processes that occur within the life or execution cycle.

The history of warfare shows that the key is mainly the 'degree' of technological superiority, which cannot then be otherwise compensated for (e.g. by numerical superiority). And this fact directly affects the fundamental nature of autonomous machines, against which (thanks to their very rapid reaction) humans will no longer be able to act effectively. We are now at the beginning in understanding this phenomenon, but current technological demonstrators and simulations point to the development of a future battlefield in which it will no longer make sense to deploy human soldiers (since human combat with autonomous robots will amount to certain suicide). For this reason, the robotization of combat operations will be absolutely crucial to operating effectively on the 21st century battlefield, and the technological maturity of autonomous systems will play a critical role. From a global perspective, the world is at an advanced stage in the robotization and implementation of artificial intelligence, and many of the initiating demonstrators are already showing significant potential in the short to medium term. In fact, many components are already available and only need to be integrated or adapted to a specific application. It is also important to note that the high degree of conservatism in the implementation of advanced technologies leads to a significant slowdown in the adaptation of defence departments to emerging challenges in the operational environment, which can have fatal consequences.