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Nonfiction

Retro Robots on the Battlefield

Battlefield robots are armed, intelligent, and poised to change the face of modern warfare. At least, that’s what the pundits have been repeating for the last decade.

Retro Robots on the Battlefield by Daniel H. WilsonThe proof seems to be in the air, sea, and on the ground. In the last few years, we’ve seen Predator unmanned aerial vehicles obliterating enemy convoys with Hellfire missiles. Samsung SGR-A1 sentry turrets man the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, capable of autonomously seeking and shooting human targets. Meanwhile, American soldiers are lugging man-packable robots that can navigate rugged battlefields and defuse improvised explosive devices.

By all accounts, the future is now. What isn’t as obvious, however, is that this highly sophisticated “future of warfare” has been here for sixty plus-years. A wide variety of retro robots have been fighting our battles since the Korean War, and I think it’s about time we recognized some of these faithful soldiers.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to describe why land mines are technically robots. They’re not. The generally accepted definition of a robot is a mechanical artifact that can sense the environment, think about a decision, and then execute that decision in the real world. The sensing is done with sensors, like cameras; thinking typically done on a computational platform, like a computer; and the acting done with an end effector, like an arm or an afterburner. Land mines may be considered autonomous weapons—they certainly don’t want or need any help after deployment—but a simple trigger condition (such as being stepped on) does not meet the cognitive criteria of “thinking.”

So let’s save our praise for real robots, making real decisions in battle.

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AQM-34 “Lightning Bug” Drone

We kick off our excursion into retro robots on the battlefield with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Pilotless aircraft began as aerial targets or just gyroscopically-guided unmanned missiles at the turn of the 20th century. By 1964, Beatlemania was sweeping across the United States, and the AQM-34 “Lightning Bug” drone was sweeping across Southeast Asia, conducting photo-reconnaissance missions for the Strategic Air Command 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW).

Developed from the bones of a target-practice drone, the Lightning Bug was deployable from a modified C-130 transport plane and capable of flying strategic routes at very low altitudes, collecting real-time video and taking photographs. The drone autonomously determined its own position, adjusted course, and navigated between waypoints over hundreds of miles. The SRW flew more than three thousand sorties between 1964 and 1975. Ultimately, the Lightning Bug retired two years before the first personal computers came on the market.

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Mark (MK) 48 TorpedoMark (Mk) 48 Torpedo

Other retro robot warriors have teeth.

Consider the Mark (Mk) 48 torpedo. Operational in the U.S. Navy since 1972, the Mk-48 can navigate the distance to target autonomously, using active or passive sonar. On the active side, the torpedo emits sonar pings and listens for their echoes to detect the location of enemy subs. Passively, the torpedo uses a hydrophone to listen for enemies. If the smart torpedo misses on the first pass, it is capable of trying again until it runs out of fuel.

Like most robots, there is the option for remote control. As the Mk-48 leaves the launch tube, it trails a wire that allows a human operator to direct the torpedo past decoys and through any jamming employed by the enemy. After that, the torpedo is on its own. Navy Chief Engineer John Canning writes that a submariner once reported to him that you only had to answer two questions in order to use the Mk-48. (1) “Is the target in range?” and (2) “Do you want to kill it?”

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Mk 60 CAPTOR Underwater Mine

But what if the target is not in range and you don’t know if you want to kill it?

Leave the job to another hardworking retro robot: The Mk 60 CAPTOR underwater mine, conceived in 1960 and in common use by 1979. Placed in the likely path of enemy vessels, the CAPTOR waits for months in deep water, listening for potential targets. Once detected, targeted submarines are autonomously classified by their sound signature and an attack plan formed. Once the enemy is in range, the CAPTOR deploys an acoustic homing torpedo that travels in a circular pattern to trackdown and destroy the target. The CAPTOR is a mine that isn’t willing to sit still and wait for its prey, sometimes described as a “mousetrap that chases the mouse.”

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MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapons System

On the surface, autonomous guns have been around for more than three decades. The MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapons System looks like an oversized R2D2 with twin 20-millimeter rapid-fire gun mounts—and that might not be a coincidence. The system became operational in 1977, the same year Star Wars was released.

Mounted to US Navy ships, the MK 15 is designed to knock out fast-moving threats that have already breached outer fleet defenses. Necessarily operating faster than human reactions allow, the MK 15 can shoot down anti-ship missiles or fixed-wing aircraft traveling at high speeds. This autonomous gun does its job start to finish: Searching for threats, detecting them, evaluating them, acquiring targets, tracking them, firing on them, destroying them, assessing the kill and then making a decision to cease fire. Since the late 1970s, the MK 15 has been a cornerstone of self-defense aboard almost every class of Navy ship.

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These are just a few of the many unsung retro robot warriors that have been fighting on battlefields around the world since before Neil Armstrong decided to try on a space suit. Even so, the robotic future of warfare perennially seems to be just over the horizon. Although it’s exhilarating to imagine that we are on the verge of a never-before-seen technological transformation, the truth is that we’re in the middle of a robotic revolution, not on the cutting edge.

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Daniel H. Wilson

Daniel H. Wilson

Daniel H. Wilson is a Cherokee citizen and author of the New York Times bestselling Robopocalypse and its sequel Robogenesis, as well as seven other books, including How to Survive a Robot Uprising, A Boy and His Bot, and Amped. He earned a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as Masters degrees in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. His latest novel is The Clockwork Dynasty. Wilson lives in Portland, Oregon.