So, our friend @FilmLadd on Twitter posited thus:
— FilmLadd (@FilmLadd) November 4, 2015
Oh, there is, and will be increased remote controlled (and eventually autonomous) weaponry. But there will always be a place for the infantryman on the ground.
Let’s take a look at a current situation, security for a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan. A large FOB serves as the logistical hub for a network of smaller Combat Outposts to conduct operations in a given region. They might be centered on an airfield that provides a base for Close Air Support, airlift and airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance assets.
These large bases are attractive targets for enemy attack. But they’re also hard enough targets that the Taliban doesn’t like to stage mass attacks against them, as it would prove too costly in lives and equipment. But the Taliban does like to make harassment attacks, primarily with either mortars or the ever popular 107mm unguided rocket.
The base isn’t completely helpless here. First, the base has counterbattery radar, that detects incoming indirect fire and issues a warning for all troops to take cover. More importantly, the radar can track back the rocket to its launching point, and provide that data to our artillery for counterbattery fires, often before the rocket even lands. And while that is going on, the counterbattery radar is also cueing C-RAM, Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar system. Currently C-RAM is a modified Navy Phalanx 20mm gatling gun that uses a radar to track both the incoming projectile, and the outgoing stream of bullets. It merges the two until the incoming is destroyed.
Coupled with elevated sensors on masts using Forward Looking Infrared, that’s an integrated system that pretty much means attacks on the FOB can rarely be more than simple nuisance attacks.
But @FilmLadd sees a future where networked unmanned systems operate even further afield. FLIR, Millimeter Wavelength Radar (MMW), and other sensors mounted on what he calls “armed stalks”, and armed with the CROWS or some similar system, lording over the battlefield.
Sounds great, right?
As to FLIR and MMW, neither sensor is perfect. Both are vulnerable to countermeasures. Worse still, they give a “soda straw” view of the battlefield. It’s very difficult to maintain situational awareness with the limited field of view offered by them. And while an operator is evaluating one contact, others aren’t being searched for. Then there are the weapons mounted. It’s a sad fact that weapons, even generally reliable weapons in our inventory, jam from time to time, usually at the most inopportune time. That’s with daily maintenance performed on them. Left uncared for for more than a day, dust, or rust, can quickly render a weapon useless. Finally, control of these remote stalks has to be via radio frequency networks. And every RF network is vulnerable to some extent to jamming. There’s ways to mitigate that, but none are perfect. Heck, you’ve probably got a wifi deadspot in your house that frustrates you. Why would you think Army networking built by the lowest bidder is any better? The other option is running cabling to the “stalk” but that leave the cable vulnerable to being cut, either by enemy action, or simple carelessness, such as a truck driving over it.
There are remote weapon stations in development, such as the Containerized Weapon Station, basically CROWS mounted in a TriCon container that can elevate its sensors and weapons and perform as an unmanned guard tower. But that’s designed to be used within the perimeter of a base. After all, the guns require maintenance, as do the sensors (dust settling on the FLIR window will degrade its performance very quickly), resupplying its ammo and checking its backup power system. That’s pretty much the state of the art, today.
But if you were to emplace it outside the perimeter, you’d still have to send a patrol out at least daily to service it, and where is the benefit to that? That simply means you’ve given the enemy a known, fixed point where our troops will visit sooner or later, and likely in an extremely predictable size and manner. That’s practically a written invitation for an ambush.
So the used of unmanned sensors and weapons makes a fair bit of sense for the defense of a static position. But there simply isn’t the capability today to field unmanned ground systems independent of ground troop formations. Nor is there likely to be some fundamental change to technology that will enable remote systems to become offensive systems without accepting severe limitations in capabilities.