The ruthless nature of the Iraq war has forced the US military to deploy robots armed with machine guns at military checkpoints to deal with suicide bombers.
The robots, developed from technology used to deal with unexploded bombs, can be armed with a fearsome range of weaponry but the first of the 18 units due to be sent to Iraq this month will be armed with rifles or machine guns according to US military sources.
The small tank-like machines can carry flame-throwers, grenade and rocket launchers and will be controlled by soldiers from distances of over half a mile away. According to a spokesman for the manufacturers Foster-Miller the robots have a range of 20 miles and can travel at four miles an hour.
“This is the first to the party, but this is a sign of the way things are going to go, there are concerns about the introduction of a notion of remoteness into the battlefield but it’s not a fair fight out there.”
Though the debate over quite what the robots will mean for modern warfare has already started in US news papers.
“Traditional warfare – a match of peers could become a thing of the past,” said John Pike, an expert on cutting edge technology for the US defence consultants Global Security “but this might also rob us of our humanity. We could be the ones that wind up looking like Terminators in the world’s eyes.”
The robots, part of Foster-Miller’s Talon series, were first deployed during the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora, where they were used on reconnaissance missions, entering the caves and sending back pictures to those outside.
“It was then that they realised that they could also be equipped with weapons,” said the Foster-Miller spokesman who was at pains to stress that the control of the Talon robots by a human operator was considered a necessity.
“Any time this is used it must be an extension of the soldier, all of the autonomy has been purposely removed. It must be the same as a gun-sight.”
Some of the Talon robots will patrol the perimeter of military bases and prevent the mortar attacks that have become a favoured tactic of the insurgents, these will be equipped with sniper rifles to deter would be attackers and give the US soldiers a ‘stand-off capability.’
Though the advantages of the robots are obvious.
Weighing around 126 pounds and kitted out with sensors and four camera ‘eyes’ they are fast, tough, can go to places that would be extremely dangerous for normal soldiers and, like the hero of the cult film ‘Terminator’, they can be rebuilt after being blown up.
“These things have no family to write home to,” said Pike.
The Talons are also most definitely the shape of things to come. The result of an ongoing research programme that has been underway in the US for the last eight years and is costing between $3-6bn, the remotely controlled sentries are only the first.
Next to be deployed will be a robot ambulance called the Robotic Extraction Vehicle that will be able to pick injured soldiers from the battlefield.
Capable of acting completely autonomously the system is currently also being controlled by a human operator because of problems it has identifying hazardous terrain.
After that the robot tank, already under development by the US military will make its appearance on the battlefield. Part of a range of systems known as ‘brilliant’ or ‘smart’ weapons many of the next generation will be equipped with rapid response weapons systems that will allow them to engage enemies faster than is possible now.
A capability being experimented with in the Talon which has a controlled pointing system that will keep weapons directed at the enemy no matter what path the robot takes as an aid in coordinated attacks.