Q. What is the state of proliferation in terms of unmanned ground technologies?
The UGV market is set to grow over fivefold over the next five years, from about $1.51 billion in 2014 to $8.26 billion by 2020. Countries are increasingly recognizing advantages in terms of troop safety, whether to do surveillance and reconnaissance before entering an area, for example, spotting snipers or removing IEDs.8 The United States is the largest user of UGVs, owning roughly 45% of the UGVs in the world. The United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Germany are the next biggest users, all operating between 5% and 8% of existing UGVs. Israel, Australia, Switzerland, and Sweden each own approximately 3% of the UGVs in the world. The rest of the world commands roughly 17% of the world's UGV market, including Russia, which is increasingly interested in combat robots.9 Figure 4.1 summarizes the market share by major country.
Even though the market in Europe, the continent with the second-1 argest UGV share after North America, is growing, it is doing so fairly slowly. The market, according to a major industry analysis, "has remained niche," in part because defense budgets have been shrinking, which means states can afford fewer numbers of a particular technology, increasing unit costs, making the technology less affordable, and so on.10 Within Europe, the United Kingdom has been active in the development of modern UGVs, mostly for use in IED detection, engineering, and surveillance/reconnaissance. The Terrier Unmanned/Manned Combat Engineer Vehicle, for example, is able to operate in either manned or unmanned configuration, conducting route clearance even at night, as it is equipped with five cameras and thermal imaging technology
Figure 4.1 Share of World UGV Market by Country
Source: Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
that is used for surveillance. While mostly used in this capacity as route clearance, it is also used for transport and can even be equipped with a general-purpose machine gun and smoke grenade launcher for combat operations.
As with aerial drones, Israel has also very much been at the vanguard of UGVs, using them for reconnaissance, remote- controlled weapons, IED detection/disposal, and border surveillance. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) justifies its investment in the technology in the following way: "Major threats are evolving on Israel's borders every day... . The superiority of Israel's technology is its greatest deterrent against these threats. Among its finest tools are UGVs, which could redefine Israel's capabilities in the near future."11
One of their primary systems is the Guardium, whose development began as an initiative of the IDF in 2008—a partnership between Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit Industries. Originally meant to carry out reconnaissance and weapons operation, it became "one of the first regularly operating unmanned security vehicles in the world."12 The Guardium MK III is fully autonomous, reportedly "creates deterrence by rapid closure of the sensor-to-shooter loop, identifies and classifies hostile activity, gives advance warning to military forces, and provides a threat response—all without endangering personnel."13 With technology developing so quickly, the Guardium is being phased out for a new technology, called the Border Protector or Border Defender, which is intended to monitor the Gaza border with its cameras, operated by soldiers located long distances from the vehicle.
The next generation of UGVs to be deployed by the IDF is called the Loyal Partner. This iteration is an armored carrier, much like a Humvee, that can carry weapons and other equipment to deployed soldiers while also conducting surveillance. Also in the repertoire will be backpack-carried UGVs called Carrier Robots that "will do things that no human can, such as mapping entire buildings and terror tunnels," a term Israel uses to refer to the tunnels between Israel and its neighbors that traffic in weapons and terrorists.14 The technology, as with unmanned technologies in general, will be able to overcome the limitations of humans. Whereas humans need rest and sleep, the unmanned counterparts can operate for hours and hours without a break. Moreover, the value of a human life is higher than that of a robot, which is more expendable and can therefore accept more risk in terms of engaging in urban conflict, encountering enemy fire, or even breathing in the tunnels.
Russia also holds a keen interest in developing UGVs not only for surveillance and reconnaissance but also to fire munitions. Popular Mechanics put it succinctly when it reported that Russia wants "fighting robots, and lots of them."15 The versions in development are semiautonomous; however, Russia hopes to develop an autonomous version in the future. One type of system is a mobile shock-reconnaissance robotics system, which was tested and approved in April 2014. The system will be deployed to secure Russian missile sites. It will be operated from a remote site through a wireless connection. Russia's future goals include an autonomous artificial intelligence system that could be preprogrammed to carry out a wide range of activities, from patrol and reconnaissance missions to the destruction of targets, to providing security for those individuals protecting the missile sites.
Russia's vision for armed unmanned systems appears to be ambitious. While the United States has been cautious about deploying UGVs that fire weapons, Russia seems to be moving more aggressively in this direction. Russia anticipates using one robot to replace what today requires five to ten soldiers. One version of this technology is the Wolf-2, which is about the size of a Jeep, is amphibious, and can fire at targets with dual machine guns. Russia also has the Strelok, "Sharpshooter," which kicks down doors, climbs stairs, and is armed with a Kalashnikov; and the Metalliste, which is a six-wheeler with a silenced submachine gun. Despite these developments, The Robot Report concludes that "Russians have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to sophisticated fighting robots," having fallen far behind the Israelis and Americans in development.16
Following in the footsteps of the states seeking unmanned technology for locating and defusing IEDs, India has developed Daksh, an electrically-powered, remote-controlled unmanned ground robot that is intended to identify and defuse all types of hazardous objects, primarily IEDs. It can also climb stairs, carry relatively heavy hazardous objects, and operate for three hours on a full charge. The first delivery of five Dakshs took place in December 2011 and was India's first indigenously developed robot, beating out the British equivalent that the Indian Army also tested. A new version as of September 2015 is three times faster and has the ability to survey areas contaminated by nuclear, biological, or chemical exposure, and a mounted weapon.17 India is also looking into unmanned ground combat vehicles that could perform counterinsurgency operations, recover hostages, or disrupt indoor hostage situations, which otherwise would put soldiers at risk, while also mounting a light machine gun or grenade launcher. In short, India has been moving quickly in developing homegrown UGVs.
China is also venturing into the development of UGVs but is estimated to be about five years behind the United States and Israel. China seems to have identified unmanned ground technology as the wave of the future, however, and has made a number of major pronouncements in 2014 about future plans. According to an officer in the People's Liberation Army, "unmanned ground vehicles will play a very important role in future ground combat. Realizing that, we have begun to explore how to refit our armored vehicles into unmanned ones."18 Another officer, the president of the PLA Academy of Armored Forces Engineering in Beijing, said that "though we have yet to develop unmanned tanks, I think it is an irreversible trend that computers will gradually replace humans to control those fighting machines." In June 2014, China North Industries Group, a major defense firm, created China's first research center for developing UGVs.19 The Deputy Director of the Center cited the United States' success with UGVs in Iraq and Afghanistan as a motivation behind developing their own systems that can carry out tasks more safely and remotely.
A number of other countries are developing technologies similar to those described above. Many of these are based in Canada and the European Union, with some exceptions such as the South African Testudo Unmanned Ground Robot, which can climb stairs, is capable of performing civil and military missions, such as explosives disposal and reconnaissance, and has a top speed of 3.7 mph and endurance of 6 hours with one charge. The vehicle is meant for both military missions such as explosives disposal, reconnaissance, and mine surveying and also civilian missions such as search and rescue.
In sum, despite the fact that only a couple of states have significant UGV programs, a number of others are investing more resources in future development. Meanwhile, the unmanned ground combat vehicles that the United States developed in the mid-2ooos have never seen fielded use due to an abundance of caution about the unintended operational consequences. Whether the countries that are developing these technologies will follow suit by exercising comparable caution, or whether the United States is just waiting to use its technologies or to further develop and test its fleet, remains to be seen.