Driverless vehicles may reshape future of warfare

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
The push for modernization spans the breadth of the Army’s weaponry and vehicles. The Army needs to update its Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a tank platform that’s been in service since 1981.

Warren— Detroit carmakers say autonomous vehicles will change transportation forever. The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center here is using that technology to reshape the future of warfare.

Secretary of the Army Mark Esper is seizing the opportunity of a larger budget and slowing combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to pump money and other resources into the modernization of the Army’s tanks, transport vehicles and weapons.

Everything is on the table, Esper said, and in the distant future, that could mean self-driving tanks and other automated vehicles join the infantry.

Teams at the Warren TARDEC facility are focusing on what Esper, Sen. Gary Peters and other experts and officials say could be the biggest life-saving change to the U.S. Army in decades: self-driving transport vehicles.

“That’s going to have an immediate short-term impact on saving war fighters’ lives,” Peters said. “In the war in Iraq, we lost more soldiers in logistics operations than we did in combat. That’s because driving a fuel truck across dangerous terrain is a pretty dangerous thing.”

Just as U.S. and international automakers repeatedly say they hope to eliminate fatal auto accidents through self-driving vehicles, the U.S. Army seeks to save fighters in combat operations and logistics missions through advanced machinery.

Top, An explosive ordinance disposal robot can lift up to 100 pounds. Left, Engineer Jim Willis connects radios to a robotic research and development platform for remote control.

“This technology could very well change the character of warfare as we know it now,” Esper said when he visited the TARDEC facility in late April. “We don’t want to be in a fair fight. We want the fight to always be tilted in our favor.”

The Army is catching up to the private market’s technology, and then it will need to adapt that technology to its needs.

TARDEC personnel are testing a “leader-follower” transport. The lead vehicle is driven by a human, and a driverless one follows behind it.

The goal is to ultimately reduce the number of human bodies exposed to unmanned explosives and attacks along the road by only having soldiers in the first and last vehicles in a convoy.

Maj. Gen. Clark LeMasters, who commands U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command Life Cycle Management at TARDEC, said teams have been working with wiring and sensors for those vehicles.

“It’s the weirdest thing in the world to see this (vehicle) with a driver fly by at 40 mph, and then another come along behind it without anyone with it,” LeMasters said.

That technology could debut within the next decade. Other changes are less clear, but LeMasters and others said Esper’s goals could give the Army the largest boost in ability seen in decades.

Members of the Canadian army check out a Abrams tank during a tour of tlhe U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren.

“When we brought in new tanks and new vehicles in the past, there was a marked improvement in our ability to accomplish the Army’s mission,” LeMasters said. “We could shoot farther; we could see better overnight. These (new initiatives) are capabilities that I would call a capability step. It’s remarkable.”

Esper’s push for modernization spans the breadth of the Army’s weaponry and vehicles.

The Army needs to update its Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a tank platform that’s been in service since 1981. The M1A2 Abrams tank, produced since 1980, needs a refresh. The Humvee light truck, in service since 1984, is also due for a change. Then there are guns.

The wars of the future won’t be fought solely by automated U.S. robots firing missiles and bullets and other robots. Drone technology will appear on the ground, and in many cases will be there to assist soldiers rather than replace them.

“There will always be a human element,” Peters said. “A machine can be more powerful than a human, but a human with a machine can be more powerful than just a machine.”

Said Esper: “It’s hard to envision a future where you wold ever get the human out of conflict. It is a contest of wills at the end of the day; it is a very human endeavor. And for moral and ethical reasons, I don’t necessarily think you’ll ever see the human out of the loop.”

James Lewis, a researcher with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based policy research group, said the military has become more focused on mitigating risks.

Removing humans from harm’s way by replacing convoy drivers with self-driving systems makes the Army more efficient and risks fewer lives.

Ethical questions aside, Lewis said it doesn’t make sense for the military to pull infantry out of actual battles, because there will always be situations humans navigate better than an unmanned vehicle.

Staff at the TARDEC facility in Warren check to see whether a military tactical vehicle is prepared for training.

“We’re so far from there it’s not even worth thinking about,” Lewis said. “The real issue is what tasks can you automate. People driving around in vehicles tend to be soft targets. It’s not so much replacing people as augmenting their performance.”

For now, the biggest challenge for the Army is getting its convoy vehicles equipped to travel autonomously on uneven, unmapped terrain in any kind of weather.

While U.S. automakers and technology companies have made significant advances in getting their vehicles ready to drive on city streets, there’s no production-ready off-road vehicle.

It’s important to note the U.S. military has used unmanned drones at air and sea for years. But those open environments are much easier to navigate than the mountains and other terrain Army troops traverse.

“It’s a much more challenging task that we’ve also been in many ways late to,” Esper said.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau