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National security: America's robotic military is on the rise

Clay Dillow, Special to CNBC

Fighting force of the future

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
Image source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

While debate rages over the crisis in the Ukraine and the standoff with Russia, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wants Congress to approve a defense budget that would dramatically transform our nation's military. Reflecting both budgetary pressures as well as the winding down of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the proposal calls for a far leaner fighting force in his fiscal 2015 budget—one that would retire, cancel or scale back several aircraft, ground vehicles and naval ship systems while slashing Army troop numbers to levels not seen since the opening days of World War II.

This new force structure is a direct reaction to shrinking Pentagon budgets that will lose at least $75 billion over the next two years, and that's if sequestration cuts that are currently delayed but not forgotten don't return to take an even bigger chunk out of the Department of Defense's pocketbook in fiscal 2016 and beyond.

As such, Hagel's new budget calls for retiring workhorse aircraft like the Air Force's 50-year-old U-2 spy plane and Cold War–era tank-killing A-10 Thunderbolt II in favor of newer systems (like the unmanned Global Hawk drone and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter); reducing the operating capacity of some Navy warships; potentially mothballing an aircraft carrier; closing several military bases; and significantly reducing the size of both the Marines and the Army.

But a smaller military doesn't necessarily spell diminished capabilities, nor does a reduction in aircraft or certain kinds of naval vessels indicate that America's military power is waning. In fact, its capability remains on a steady rise. The U.S. military is still the most technologically-advanced fighting force in history, and this latest evolution is one that's been many decades in the making.

U.S. military planners have long sought technologies that could reduce the Pentagon's human footprint, replacing manpower with force-multiplying technologies—things like autonomous robotic aircraft, self-navigating ground vehicles, and naval vessels that can unleash more (and smarter) firepower with reduced crew.

Only in the last decade, however, has computing power, robotic hardware and computerized autonomy caught up. Here's a look at leading-edge technologies.

By Clay Dillow, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 3 March 2014


K-MAX Unmanned Multi-Mission Helicopter
Image source: Lockheed Martin

Built by a collaboration between Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace, the unmanned, robotic K-MAX is capable of flying preprogrammed routes while carrying up to 6,000 pounds of cargo via a sling load tethered to its belly. K-MAX deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 for a six-month trial period with U.S. Marines operating there, and the Marines liked it so much, they haven't given it back. It now makes live resupply runs between outposts in Afghanistan, delivering up to 30,000 pounds of cargo a day without exposing human flight crews to danger.

Lockheed is currently imbuing K-MAX with additional autonomous functions that allow it to change its flight path or landing approach without human intervention if it detects an obstruction or threat. A new system tested late last year allows a hovering K-MAX to link up with a cargo pallet on the ground, move it to a new location and drop it off—all without assistance from Marines on the ground.

K-MAX has become such an effective logistics tool for the Marines that the Army is now looking into integrating K-MAX into its own supply chains. With logistics being such a sprawling and manpower-intensive wartime enterprise, systems like K-MAX, which automate the process and eliminate the need for trained flight crews, will go a long way toward reducing the military's manpower requirements during future conflicts.

Zumwalt-class destroyer

The Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer DDG 1000 is floated out of dry dock at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works Shipyard.
Image source: General Dynamics

The Navy's new Zumwalt-class destroyer could be construed as something of a poster child for everything wrong with the military procurement process. Originally slated for a production run of more than 30 ships, Congressional wrangling and shifting naval priorities saw that number reduced to 10 and then just three vessels, driving the per-ship cost to more than $3 billion. But the Zumwalt, the first of which recently rolled out of dry dock at Bath Iron Works in Maine, is an important technological step forward for the Navy.

Built collaboratively by Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls (which spun out of Northrop Grumman a few years ago), BAE Systems and others, it is the world's most technologically-sophisticated warship, armed with the latest smart munitions and designed with automation and survivability in mind.

Packing two huge diesel turbines, the Zumwalt class generates far more power than it currently needs for propulsion, allowing for the integration of all kinds of futuristic systems, including those that streamline ship operations and automate tasks that used to require a whole lot of human agency. Everything from the loading and firing of the Zumwalt's main guns to its fire-suppression systems to the galley is automated, allowing the ship to operate with a crew of roughly 150 (compared to the nearly 300 sailors needed to crew one of the Navy's existing Arleigh Burke–class destroyers). With the ship handling most of the menial tasks robotically, seamen can focus on the mission—and they can do so in far smaller numbers.

Squad Mission Support System

Squad Mission Support System
Image source: Lockheed Martin

The modern soldier has to carry a lot of weight (much of that in batteries to power all their electronics), leading to a whole new set of stresses and injuries that can erode a unit's combat readiness. The six-wheeled SMSS can take a lot of weight off soldiers' backs, providing them with both increased long-term mobility and a source of power.

In the first experiment of its kind, SMSS deployed to Afghanistan for a round of tests in 2011, proving its ability to autonomously follow dismounted soldiers in the field as a kind of robotic pack mule. But beyond being a cargo-hauler and mobile charging station for soldier electronics, SMSS can be manually tele-operated as well, allowing soldiers to survey an area before sending humans into harm's way.

What's more, in February, Lockheed Martin announced that it will be conducting teaming tests with its SMSS platform and K-MAX unmanned helicopter—exercises in which a robotic K-MAX helicopter will deliver an SMSS to an area so it can conduct reconnaissance while the K-MAX returns to base.

That kind of robotic teaming opens up a world of possibilities for the ground-based branches of the military. Using such a system, something like K-MAX could not only deliver supplies to dismounted soldiers and Marines but could pre-insert a robotic ground vehicle into an area so it could scan for threats before troops even arrive on the ground.


An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flies near the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). George H.W. Bush is the first aircraft carrier to successfully catapult launch an unmanned aircraft from its flight deck.
Image source: U.S. Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt

The U.S. Navy's X-47B exists at the very bleeding edge of what's possible with unmanned and autonomous flight technology. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones flown by the Air Force and CIA, the X-47B is designed as an actual fighter jet, complete with a stealthy, low-observable design and internal weapons bays capable of carrying a limited strike payload. But more importantly, the X-47B isn't remotely piloted by a human with a joystick; commanders tell the X-47B where to go and what to do via a data uplink, and the aircraft takes off, pilots, and lands itself per those instructions.

The robotic X-47B made major headlines last summer when it made the first autonomous landing aboard an aircraft carrier—a major milestone both for robotic flight and for future naval operations.

Only two X-47B aircraft exist, and that's all the Navy intends to make, but their impact on future systems can't be overestimated. The Navy will follow this year's remaining X-47B trials with the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Sureveillance and Strike program, which will entertain design proposals from Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, and Boeing. Drawing on the lessons learned from the X-47B, the winner of that design competition will ultimately develop an operational fleet aircraft that should be ready for service around 2020.

The Navy's first autonomous, weaponized carrier-launched fighter jet—no human pilot required—will patrol the skies around aircraft carrier groups and carry out stealthy surveillance and even strike missions in contested skies, cutting down on the requirement for human-piloted missions.

Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System

Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System
Image source: Clay Dillow

The Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System looks more like the warbots science fiction has always promised: cold, menacing and armed to the teeth. But its makers at U.K.-based Qinetiq see it as more of a force de-escalator. While it is capable of responding to hostile fire with either lethal or nonlethal force (including less-lethal projectiles and countermeasures like laser dazzlers that blind enemies), soldiers operating the robot don't really have to worry about defending it if they choose not to, changing the calculus on the battlefield.

From a force-multiplier perspective, soldiers with a platform like MAARS in tow could enhance both their ability to clear objectives and hold territory as well as to increase firepower as necessary, making smaller groups of soldiers more effective against superior numbers. It's worth noting, however, that while the U.S. military has taken delivery of a few MAARS platforms purely to explore the possibilities, MAARS has yet to be forward deployed with U.S. troops.

Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System

Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System
Image source: DARPA

Though still at a very conceptual stage, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or DARPA, the blue-sky research arm of the Pentagon) and Lockheed Martin's ARES system aims to use autonomy to solve several problems that have long vexed military planners—chiefly how to airlift people and cargo without exposing hovering helicopter crews or ground convoys to danger.

The ARES system would consist of a payload-agnostic, autonomous vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) system that could transport anything from surveillance sensors to cargo pallets to wounded soldiers that might otherwise be unable to get from the battlefield to triage. Autonomous flight capabilities would obviate the need for human pilots; overseers would simply tell an ARES platform where to go, what to pick up or drop off, and where to take it. Like K-MAX, such a platform would drastically simplify logistics and keep human helicopter crews out of harm's way.

And they're a distinctive improvement over the one-pilot-per-aircraft model that governs flight logistics today; Ideally one small unit of operators could keep several autonomous ARES vehicles operating simultaneously.

MQ-4C Triton

Two Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicles are seen on the tarmac at a Northrop Grumman test facility in Palmdale, Calif. Triton is undergoing flight testing as an unmanned maritime surveillance vehicle
Image source: Northrop Grumman

If approved, the new Pentagon budget will retire the Air Force's U-2 spy planes, which have provided the Department of Defense with aerial reconnaissance since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those U-2s will be replaced with Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk reconnaissance drones and their newer cousin, the MQ-4C Triton.

A sturdier maritime version of the Global Hawk (the Air Force has been using Global Hawks for several years now), the Triton platform was developed for the Navy and will allow for unprecedented situational awareness of maritime environments without the need for an endless rotation of human-piloted missions.

Capable of flying for 24 hours at a time without refueling, the high-flying Triton and it's bleeding edge suite of sensors that can see all the way to the horizon can surveil 2 million square nautical miles during each flight. It also operates autonomously, cutting down on personnel requirements. Operators can launch the Triton and set it on a pre-programmed orbit, then keep a lazy eye on it.

When its sensors detect something out of the ordinary—its robot brains are smart enough to know the difference between a container ship and, say, a surfacing North Korean submarine—it can notify its handlers and interface with other manned aircraft in the area, like the sub-hunting P-8 Poseidon currently under development at Boeing.

All said, the Navy will spend $13 billion for 68 Tritons, which will go into service next year.

—By Clay Dillow, Special to CNBC.com

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