The war in Ukraine has become the largest proving ground for autonomous and unmanned artificial intelligence vehicles in history. While the use of military robots is nothing new — remote-controlled war machines were born in World War II, and the US only deployed fully autonomous attack drones in 2020 — we are seeing the proliferation of a new class of combat vehicles in Ukraine.
This article discusses the “killer robot” technology used by both sides in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Our main takeaway is that the “killer” part of “killer robots” doesn’t apply here. Read on to find out why.
Unmanned versus autonomous
This war represents the first deployment of the modern class of unmanned vehicles and automated weapons platforms in a protracted invasion involving forces of relatively similar technology. While Russia’s military appears superior to Ukraine’s on paper, both sides have fielded forces with similar capabilities. Compared to the forces that Russia faced during its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, or, for example, those that the US faced during the skirmishes in Iraq and Afghanistan, what is currently happening on the ground in Ukraine demonstrates a more parallel engagement- Theatre.
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However, it is important to note that this is not a war waged by machines. Autonomous or unmanned weapons and vehicles are unlikely to make much of a difference in war simply because they are untested and currently unreliable.
Unmanned vehicles and autonomous vehicles are not necessarily the same thing. While nearly all autonomous vehicles — those that can operate without human intervention — are unmanned, many unmanned vehicles can only be operated remotely by humans. Perhaps most importantly, many of these vehicles have never been tested in combat. This means they are more likely to be used in “support” roles than as autonomous combat vehicles, even though they were designed for that.
But before we get into the how and why behind the use of military robots in modern warfare, we need to explain what kind of vehicles are currently in use. There are no “killer robots” in warfare. This is a collective term used to describe both autonomous and unmanned military vehicles.
These include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs, another term for unmanned sea or waterborne vehicles).
So the first question we need to answer is: why not just turn the robots into killers and let them fight the war for us? You may be surprised to learn that the answer has very little to do with regulations or rules governing the use of “killer robots”.
To put it simply, militaries have better things to do with their robots than just send fire down. That doesn’t mean they aren’t tested this way, it already is Evidence that happened.
A British “Harrier” UPS, credit: Wikicommons
However, we’ve seen it all before. The use of “killer robots” in warfare is now old hat. The US used drones in Iraq and Afghanistan and as we reported here at TNWit even sent a Predator drone to autonomously assassinate an Iranian general.
What is different in this war is the proliferation of UAVs and UGVs in combat support roles. We’ve seen drones and autonomous land vehicles before in the war, but never on this scale. Both armed forces use unmanned vehicles to perform tasks that traditionally either couldn’t be done or required additional human forces. It also has to be noted that they use gear that is relatively untested, which explains why we don’t see both countries using these units en masse.
A development crucible
Developing war technology is a tricky move. Despite manufacturers’ best assurances, there is simply no way of knowing what could possibly go wrong until a given technology is actually deployed in the field.
We saw a prime example of this paradigm in the Vietnam War the debut of the M-16 rifle. It was intended to replace the trusty old M-14. But as the first soldiers to use the new weapon tragically discovered, it was not fit for use in the jungle without modifications to its design and special training for the soldiers who would use it. Many soldiers died in the process.
A US Marine cleans her M16 during the US-Vietnam War, Credit: Wikicommons
That’s one of the many reasons why a number of nations that have so far refused to be directly involved in the war are eager to send state-of-the-art robots and weapons to the Ukrainian government in hopes of testing the capabilities of their technology without endangering their own soldiers’ skin.
TNW spoke with Alex Stronell, a Land Platforms Analyst and UGV leader jane, the Defense Intelligence Service. They explained that one of the more interesting aspects of the use of UGVs, especially in the war in Ukraine, is the lack of certain designs that we would otherwise have expected.
“For example, the issue has received a lot of attention inside and outside of Russia Career-9 … It certainly looks like a menacing vehicle and has been touted as the most advanced combat UGV in the world,” Stronell told us, before adding, “However, I have seen no evidence that the Russians used the Uranium-9 in the have used Ukraine. and that could be because it still needs further development.”
Uranium-9 Armed Combat Robot UGV Unmanned Ground Vehicle Rosboronexport Russia Russian Defense Industry – YouTube
On the other hand, Stronell previously wrote that the Ukrainian Armed Forces will soon deploy the world’s largest number of THeMIS UGVs (see video below). That’s extraordinary considering the nation’s arsenal is largely on loan from other countries.
Milremthe company that manufactures the THeMIS UGV, recently announced that the German Ministry of Defense had 14 of its vehicles sent to the Ukrainian armed forces for immediate use. According to Stronell, these vehicles will not be armed. They are equipped for casualty evacuation and for locating and removing land mines and similar devices.
Milrem Robotics’ THeMIS UGVs used in a manned and unmanned live fire teaming exercise – YouTube
But it’s also safe to say that troops on the ground will find other uses for them. As anyone who’s ever been deployed to a combat zone can tell you, space is at a premium and there’s no point in taking more than you can carry.
However, the THeMIS is equipped with Milrem’s “Intelligence Function Kit” which includes the “Follow me” ability. This means it would make an excellent combat mule for transporting ammunition and other equipment. And certainly nothing prevents anyone from retrofitting the THeMIS with combat modules or simply strapping a self-made autonomous weapon system onto it.
DIY Scrap Metal Auto-Turret (RaspberryPi Auto-Tracking Airsoft Sentry?!) – YouTube
As much as the world fears the dawn of the age of killer robots in warfare, the current technology simply isn’t here yet. Stronell dismissed the idea that about a dozen UGVs could be equipped as killer protection robots, for example, that could be used to defend strategic points. Instead, he described a hybrid man-machine paradigm called “manned-unmanned teaming, or M-UMT” where, as described above, unmounted infantry entered the battlefield with machine support.
In the time since the M-16 was mass-adopted during an ongoing conflict, the world’s militaries have refined the methodology they use to deploy new technology. Currently, the Ukraine conflict is teaching us that autonomous vehicles are useful in support functions.
The simple fact is that we are already exceptionally good at killing each other when it comes to war. And it’s still cheaper to train a human to do everything a soldier needs to do than to build giant weapon platforms for every bullet we want to send down. The actual military need for “killer robots” is likely to be far less than the average civilian would expect.
However, the AI’s prowess at finding needles in a haystack, for example, makes them the perfect reconnaissance unit, but soldiers have to do much more than just identify the enemy and pull the trigger.
However, this will surely change as AI technology matures. Because of this, Stronell told us, other European countries are either in the process of introducing autonomous weapons or have already done so.
In the Netherlands, for example, the Royal Army involved in training operations in Lithuania to test their own complement of THeMIS units in what they call a “pseudo-operative” theater. Due to the proximity of the war in Ukraine and its ongoing nature, nearby nations are able to conduct analogous military training operations based on the most up-to-date information about the ongoing conflict. Essentially, the rest of Europe is watching what Ukraine and Russia are doing with their robots and simulating the war at home.
Royal Air Force AH-64 Apache helicopter, Credit: Wikicommons
This represents a gold mine for the technologies involved, and there’s no telling how much this time of warfare will advance things. We could see countless breakthroughs in both military and civilian artificial intelligence technology as the lessons of this war begin to filter out.
To illustrate this point, it is necessary to mention that Russia has freaked out a bounty of one million rubles (approx. €15,000) to anyone who captures a Milrem THeMIS unit from the battlefield in Ukraine. These types of bounties aren’t exactly uncommon in wartime, but the fact that this particular one was so publicized is a testament to how desperate Russia is to get its hands on the technology.
A look into the future
It is clear that not only is the war in Ukraine not a place where “killer robots” will be deployed en masse to overwhelm their fragile human enemy enemy soldier counterparts, but such a scenario is highly unlikely in any form of modern warfare.
However, when it comes to augmenting our current armed forces with UGVs or replacing manned aerial and surface reconnaissance vehicles with robots, Military leaders are excited about the potential benefits of AI. And what we’re seeing right now in the war in Ukraine is the most likely way forward for technology.
That’s not to say the world shouldn’t be concerned about killer robots, or their development and proliferation through wartime use. We should be concerned because Russia’s war in Ukraine has almost certainly lowered the world’s inhibitions about developing autonomous weapons.