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

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

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Fighting force of the future

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

Image source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter