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    Middle East
     Aug 29, 2007
Robots replace trigger fingers in Iraq
By David Isenberg

WASHINGTON - Every war is a test of many things: will, resolve, heroism and sacrifice, for example. But they are also testing grounds for material things, and technology in particular. From the first rocks and flints, to spears and swords, gunpowder, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, every war has served to allow improvements to military systems and weapons.

The United States in particular has relied on its ability to leverage technology on the battlefield, both because of its advanced

scientific and technology base as well as a way to compensate for having smaller forces than some of its past opponents, especially during the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union.

Iraq is no different. In fact, given the emphasis on producing a high-tech digital force as party of former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's "force transformation" effort, technology has assumed a leading role in Iraq. Whether trying to counter improvised explosive devices (IED), proving mine-resistant vehicles, unmanned air vehicles like the Predator that can fire missiles and satellite-guided joint directed attack munitions, or the deployment of the Stryker, a new lightweight infantry carrier that can perform like a mini-tank but at higher speeds, advanced technological systems have been present in Iraq from the very beginning of the invasion.

There is no better example of this than the use of robots in Iraq. The US government will spend about US$1.7 billion on ground-based military robots between fiscal 2006 and 2012, according to the National Center for Defense Robotics, a congressionally funded consortium of 160 companies.

The US military, in fact, has deployed thousands of robotic systems to Iraq and Afghanistan. One of them is the 19-kilogram PackBot robot, manufactured by the IRobot Corp, the same company that produces the Roomba, the vacuum-cleaning robot. The PackBot rides on tracks like a miniature tank. It can climb stairs, penetrate caves, and peek around corners with video eyes so that troops can reconnoiter while avoiding the enemy as well as booby traps. The PackBot has also been deployed in Afghanistan.

The PackBot, though, is hardly the only system being used to counter the IED threat. In 2004, the Pentagon began shipping unmanned robots into Iraq in February, in response to an urgent requirement for a standoff capability to neutralize explosives along convoy routes in Iraq - namely rudimentary IEDs, which were deemed the No 1 killer in the region at the time. The deployed unmanned ground vehicles include about 10 Matildas, 22 iRobots (Packbots), 58 Vanguards, 43 Talons and 20 Mini-Andros systems. Mesa-Robotics builds the Matilda, Canada-based EOD Performance builds the Vanguard, Foster-Miller the Talon, and Northrop Grumman the Mini-Andros.

The deployed robots are designed to neutralize explosives once they are detected. Each of the systems is equipped with a "disrupter" device capable of physically disabling a threat with a burst of air or water.

However, those robots were fielded as part of a stopgap measure while the military continues with a formal acquisition plan for the Man Transportable Robotic System. That consists primarily of an operator control unit and a tele-operated vehicle. The system components will be small and light enough to be carried as a single load by a two-person team for 500 meters over semi-rugged terrain. The primary mission is reconnaissance, and the system will be enhanced to perform other explosive-ordnance tasks.

Another robot in use in Iraq is the backpackable Dragon Runner "throwbot". It was first deployed by the US marines in Iraq in 2004. The four-wheeled device is only a little more than 30 centimeters long and not quite 30cm wide and weighs 4kg. It can be thrown over walls, out a three-story window or up a flight of stairs; the flat, 12.5cm-high machine can operate whichever way it lands.

This month's issue of National Defense magazine reports that the US Army has quietly introduced a rifle-toting robot into Iraq. So far three of the Special Weapons Observation Remote Reconnaissance Direct Action System (SWORDS) have been deployed. The SWORDS is armed with an M249 rifle and is remotely controlled by a soldier through a terminal. There are no reports of the SWORDS being used in actual combat yet, however.

What all these systems have in common is that they are not truly autonomous. They all have a human operator somewhere in the loop. But that may be changing soon. An article in the August 18 Guardian noted that we are headed toward a brave new Terminator-like world where robots decide whom, where and when to kill. The US Congress has set a goal of having one-third of ground combat vehicles unmanned by 2015.

This raises complex and frightening issues. Consider that the international Law of Armed Conflict dictates that unmanned systems cannot fire their weapons without a human operator in the loop. But as new generations of armed robots are built and deployed, pressure will inevitably increase to automate the process of selecting - and destroying - targets.

If that sounds alarmist, one should note that in 2002 a new legal interpretation was proposed within the US military to deal with the issue of removing humans from the trigger-end of the killing process.

This legal theory proposed by John S Canning, chief engineer at the US Naval Surface Warfare Center, called for programming all armed robotic vehicles to aim only at weapons, not humans. For example, an autonomous vehicle spots an insurgent with an AK-47. The robotic vehicle is authorized to destroy the AK-47. If the human is killed in the process, that's what's called "collateral damage".

David Isenberg is a senior analyst with the British American Security Information Council. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and a US Navy veteran. The views expressed are his own.

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