Humanity first heard the word “robot” a hundred years ago thanks to the Czech science fiction brothers Josef and Karel Capek, who in their play Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) brought to life the idea of artificial people doing the work that humans didn’t want to do. The term itself is derived from the word “robota”, which means “slave”.
Over the past century, this term has become very popular thanks to films, comic books, and TV series, which have presented all the possible options for humans and robots to coexist.
But robots have gained tremendous popularity, and not only in science fiction stories. In recent years, the third revolution – after the invention of gunpowder and nuclear weapons – has began to take off vigorously in military technology. Its constituent components are artificial intellect (AI), robotic systems, self-acting weapons, and digitalization of the military. For now, there is only one limitation: machines must not operate nuclear weapons, and there is also an international ban on AI-based weapons systems. But major strategic adversaries are unlikely to comply with all the restrictions, and are becoming more and more actively involved in starting a new arms race.
Germany, France, and Spain have already announced their intention to jointly develop a Future Combat Air System, and this will replace the Eurofighter and Rafale fighter jets by 2040. In addition to combat aircraft, this will include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are launched from aircraft.
The American company General Dynamics Land Systems has already supplied the US Army with several MUTT wheeled ground transport robots for testing; a remotely controlled combat module, or a UAV launch platform, can be installed on these, and it can be used to evacuate the wounded, transport equipment, ammunition, and provisions, or perform surveillance work.
The Chinese PLA ground forces used a new type of multipurpose vehicle remotely controlled with a laptop machine that is equipped with two QLG-10 grenade launchers, as well as a set of electro-optical/infrared sensors.
Robotization is actively occurring among naval sailors. The United States plans to create a significant number of robotic ships in different classes whose configuration and dimensions can be changed, and in particular for various types of missile weapons systems. A large surface robot could replace cruisers and destroyers, and the Overlord project could form the cornerstone for this: with a payload of about 40 tons, it can operate off the coast for up to 90 days during a category 5 in the sea state code and a range of 4,500 thousand nautical miles.
Inexpensive and efficient unmanned aerial vehicles are ushering in a new era of warfare. And as Le Figaro writes, Turkey has shown particular skill in this type of conflict. In just the past five years, Ankara has intervened in the affairs of four countries: three times in Syria, in Libya, northern Iraq, and Nagorno-Karabakh, which would have become almost impossible for it to do without drones. It is specifically on those that the success for Ankara’s expansionist foreign policy, aimed at creating a neo-Ottoman empire, is based, the French publication emphasizes. UAVs are effective and inexpensive, and they are no longer just a tool to wreak destruction and do reconnaissance work – they also serve to coordinate the actions taken by artillery, tanks, and infantry. In addition, they disrupt enemy air defenses and communications.
There are currently over 40 different types of UAVs, and these range from conventional combat drones that fire missiles and drop (banned) cluster munitions to suicide models that self-destruct when destroying their target. The last of those are primarily manufactured by Israel.
Over the years, the largest drone manufacturers and exporters have been the United States, Israel, and China. Nowadays, they are joined by Turkey, which has been fostering its own industry and production facilities for UAVs. In 2014, the Turkish combat drone Bayraktar TB2 made its first flight, and this year a new, more powerful version appeared. Specifically, this is the Bayraktar Akinci, which is capable of carrying many more guided missiles and bombs than its predecessor.
Drones have a number of unforeseen advantages, thanks to which even weak opponents in terms of the weaponry they possess can successfully conduct military operations – and this has been pointedly confirmed by the actions taken by the Houthis in Yemen. In a state of war with Saudi Arabia, which is far superior to them militarily, the Houthis are equipped with drones provided by their ally, Iran, and are putting up opposition successfully. And their attacks on Saudi oil refineries have proven that they can strike anywhere, anytime.
It is noteworthy that this kind of scenario could be repeated in other parts of the world, and the acquisition of drones will no longer necessarily take place with government support – they may appear on the black market, just like almost any other weapon, in the near future.
In Israel, about 50 Israeli companies operate in the UAV industry – from small organizations to large holding companies – and they offer the market a total of about 160-170 types of unmanned vehicles across all classes. Over the past few decades, Israel has brought about 70 samples of robotic military equipment to the market, and Israeli UAVs have been supplied to more than 50 foreign armies, owing to which Israel occupies about 40% of the world market in terms of total shipments. Currently, Israel occupies a leading position in the international market for combat UAVs, in terms of the number of national manufacturers, the range of models, and sales volumes, with only the United States competing with it in this area. On top of that, in some areas Israeli industry maintains a lead over the US.
The media, referring to a draft document on revising the British national strategy in the field of defense and foreign policy, reported that the British army could be reduced in the coming years by 10,000 troops because of how it has put a large number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and vehicles into service. Previously, Great Britain’s Royal Navy began testing remotely controlled surface vessels, created using MAST-13 technology, that can be used to spy on enemy vessels, or find underwater mines.
Among the samples of weapons and equipment shown on Red Square on May 9, the Russian Uran-9 unmanned combat vehicle attracted much attention from foreign specialists. This reflects the area of focus where the Russian army is developing, has outstanding performance characteristics, and in terms of firepower, the machine really ranks first in the world.
In future wars, there is no doubt that unmanned military equipment will be more and more actively involved, be it in the air, at sea, or on land. Therefore, these kinds of weapons, such as unmanned combat vehicles and combat robots, will naturally develop rapidly – and developing these types of weapons and equipment is becoming a high-priority area of focus for many countries.
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.