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Unmanned Ground Forces: The Emergence of a New Industry in Europe and its Future Implications

7 December 2020

The recent decades have witnessed the rapid expansion of unmanned devices in the military sector, which have gotten more and more exposure in public debates and were increasingly used on the battlefield– from surveillance to drone strikes. The efficiency of this technology was once again proven during the short Nagorno-Karabakh war between September and November 2020, in which Azerbaijan deployed a great amount of drones against Armenia’s traditional forces, which heavily contributed to the latter’s defeat despite its easily-defendable mountainous geography (European Council on Foreign Relations, 2020).

Unmanned aerial vehicles, however, are not the only form of unmanned devices used in the army, as shown by the increasing use of Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV). UGVs present many advantages as they allow armies to reduce the amount of necessary personnel and soldiers on the battlefield, and therefore to protect more human lives. UGVs can also operate for long periods of time and use their sensor or radar technologies to detect objects of interest or hostile forces (Fernandez, et al., 2019).

In 2020, the unmanned ground vehicles market was estimated to be worth $2.28 billion and is expected to double by 2030, as the technology spills over new sectors in commercial and civilian domains. Military UGVs, however, would not be the first beneficiaries of this growth as stagnating or even decreasing military budgets in Europe and North America would limit their development, although the Asia-Pacific region should partially counterbalance this trend (Research and Markets, 2020).

A new impetus for UGVs in Europe

Most of today’s UGVs are teleoperated. This system is not new as it was developed as early as the ‘30s and used during the Winter War between 1939 and 1940. The Soviet Union deployed teleoperated unmanned tanks against Finland and used radio waves to control them from a distance as far as 1500 meters (Finn & Scheding, 2010). While their development took some time, today, a greater amount of countries are testing, combat-proving and seeking to integrate UGVs into ground forces (Army Technology, 2020).

This emerging market has raised the interest of many countries in Europe as well, notably the Estonian government which aims to build and maintain an efficient export-based high-tech Europe-wide defence sector by encouraging cooperation between the Estonian Armed Forces and the country’s defence industry (DefenseNews, 2016). Milrem –an Estonian robotic vehicle manufacturer– is this ambition’s best example, particularly with its THeMIS vehicle (short for Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System). The so-called “pocket tank” was designed to play a variety of roles, from logistics to reconnaissance. To go even further, the vehicle should also be able to support ground forces directly in combat, as the unmanned ground vehicle could be integrated with weapons and devices from other defence manufacturers. This is made possible by the UGV’s open architecture and partnership-focused strategy (Milrem Robotics, 2020). The ability to perform multiple tasks and take many forms does not only respond to an economy of scale strategy but should also contribute to reducing the number of exposed soldiers in battlefields while enhancing the industrial integration of European arms-makers, thus increasing Europe’s overall military-technical interoperability. THeMIS has been proving its efficiency in Mali since 2019, where it successfully supported the Estonian units operating under the French-led Barkhane counterterrorism operation despite rough terrains and extreme heat (Milrem Robotics, 2020). These achievements led Milrem Robotics to sign contracts with other European armies interested in experimenting this emerging technology such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, or Estonia (BFMTV, 2020; Delfi, 2020; Milrem Robotics, 2020).

Estonia’s technological advancement in this sector was officially recognised in 2018 when the country took the leadership of the industrial consortium in charge of the development of the Integrated Modular Unmanned Ground System (iMUGS), which was initiated under the Permanent European Security Cooperation (PESCO) program and was granted up to €30.6 million in funding (€2 million extra were added by other participating countries). The project includes France, Finland, Spain, Germany, Latvia, and Belgium. The prototype will be using the abovementioned THeMIS UGVs. The main objective of this European project will be to present, by 2021, a hybrid manned-unmanned common modular and modifiable architecture to complement the industrial growth of UGVs in Europe and integrate them into existing doctrines and armies (European Commission, 2020; LRT, 2019).

Milrem is not the only actor in the UGVs market in Europe; the German manufacturer Rheinmetall Defence is an interesting counterpoint. Despite not being part of the PESCO-funded industrial consortium, the firm has been busy developing new ground robots which ought to support soldiers on the battlefield as well. In November 2020, Rheinmetall unveiled its most recent project: the Mission Master unmanned ground vehicle. According to the company, the vehicle was created for delivering “high-risk scouting missions and deliver a real-time common operating picture without putting soldiers in danger” (Rheinmetall Defence, 2020), by using 360° camera, infrared technology and 7.62mm guns controlled from the weapon’s station (Malyasov, 2020). The Dutch army recently received some of Rheinmetall’s UGV prototypes for testing, while the United-Kingdom ordered four of them as part of its Robotic Platoon Vehicle Programme (DefenseNews, 2020).

Autonomous Ground Vehicles

Autonomous Ground Vehicles (AGV) are another form of UGV. They can move between checkpoints without human interference and are used today for scanning and analysing new or changing territories through simultaneous localisation and mapping processes (SLAM) or for disarming or removing mines or explosives (Unmanned Systems Technology, 2020). Though they could be programmed to distinguish soldiers from civilians, AGVs are, at this day at least, quite unlikely to be sent as a replacement of human soldiers, because enemy forces often disguise themselves as civilians and as discerning hostile forces from civilians can be rather complex  (The Guardian, 2020). In addition, AGVs still require man-made maintenance efforts just like any other machine, despite the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Filling the gap between teleoperated robots and fully autonomous ones would require much more than mere technical and technological innovations. Indeed, ethical and social issues related to the development of robotics in the military have emerged. The first problem relates to responsibility and accountability: since AGVs are not recognised by the law as legal entities, the responsibility for any issue, injury or collateral damage which could have been predicted cannot be held by the intelligent machine but must be borne by either the military commandment, the personnel, the industrial manufacturer, etc. (Wagner, 2011). Others pointed out that the problem was not so much that responsibility was blurred, but rather that there was none, stressing the fact that there is very little trial against war crimes when machines are operated from abroad (Quintana, 2008). Finally, many have observed strong opposition from public opinions, which view very negatively what they perceive as “killer robots”. Misconceptions on military robotics could have been brought by science fiction and other elements belonging to the cultural sphere. Notably, concerns were also raised by artificial intelligence engineers, civil society and the scientific community (Human Rights Watch , 2020; Amnesty International, 2018; Al Jazeera, 2019; The New York Times, 2019; The Guardian, 2018).

Because of many technical and moral limitations at the current stage, most armed UGVs will keep a humans-in-the-loop system, meaning that humans will remain at the centre of decision-making and are the ones pulling the trigger despite being possibly miles away from the battlefield –as opposed to humans-out-of-the-loop AGVs in which no human operator is involved (Finn & Scheding, 2010; US Naval war college, 2017). However, the rapidity at which technological development occurs remains exponential, meaning that the time will come when the international community will have to tackle the abovementioned issues and balance human rights and military concerns to keep innovation under control and the world safe.

Written by Enzo FALSANISI, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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