Unmanned Systems

Milley: Robots won't take over the future battlefield soon

Robots and other unmanned systems are undoubtedly part of the military’s future plans, but despite science fiction-esque notions of the power of machines, they won’t be taking over the battlefield in the near future, the Army’s top officer said this week. 

“I think revolution might be too strong a word,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said when asked if there will be a revolution of unmanned systems on the battlefield in the next 10 years. But that’s not to say that robotics, automation and unmanned systems won’t play an important role going forward.

“I do see a very, very significant increased use of robotic – both manually controlled and autonomous – in ground warfare over the coming years. Specifically, I don’t see some sort of revolution like we’re going to go from the horse to the tank or the musket to the rifle, but I do see the introduction at about the 10-year mark or so, really widespread use of robotics in ground warfare,” Milley said in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee April 7. “We’re already seeing it in air platforms and we’re seeing it in naval platforms. The ground warfare is a much more complex environment, dirty environment, but I do anticipate that we’re going to refine the use of robots significantly and there’ll be a large use of them in ground combat by, call it 2030.”

Milley added that the next decade or so will bring significant changes in the character of ground war, though not the nature of it, to include commercial solutions such as robotics, cyber capabilities, lasers, railguns, advanced information technology, miniaturization and 3D printing. 

Many of these initiatives are associated with the Third Offset Strategy, which takes aim harnessing technological advances in machine learning and man-machine teaming, to name a couple of them, as a means of offsetting adversarial advancements in by the likes of Russia and China.

Milley spoke about the capability gaps peer competitors have begun to close on the battlefield, asserting that the Army is at “high military risk” and is outranged and outgunned by Russia in terms of some of these new technologies.

“My high military risk refers specifically to what I see as emerging threats and potential for great power conflict and I’m specifically talking about the time it takes to execute the tasks – the high risk would say we would not be able to accomplish all the tasks in the time necessary – and the cost in terms of casualties,” he said.

“When you talk about the leap-ahead technology of the third offset, I do think it’s robotics…cyber, electronic warfare – the gains that we need to make there are because…our peer competitors are investing in those things too,” acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy told the congressional committee. “And we can’t be outmanned and outgunned. We need to make sure that we have the technical and tactical advantage.”  

Continued investment in research and development as well as modernization efforts are seen as areas that need to be addressed immediately to help maintain technological superiority. “I think we the Army, going back to risking the future, need to invest in the R&D and the modernization of that or we’re going to find the qualitative overmatch gap between the United States and adversaries closed. And we’re already seeing that gap closing today,” Milley said.

The Army recently released a forward-looking strategy for network modernization from 2025-2040 to serve “as a guiding document to provoke thought and a means to inform and shape research, development and experimentation by both government and industry entities to ensure that the Army maintains a technology edge in future conflict,” it said. 

report published by a workshop sponsored by the Army Research Lab last year tried to predict what the future battlefield might look like in 2050. It posited new capabilities in robot-human interaction, machine-to-machine communication, and lasers and force fields, among others.

The Army has looked at equipping soldiers with micro-tactical drones, though given the complexity of ground operations, this concept could be a still be a ways from full integration.

The Army, as well as the other services, has also sought to make greater use of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing. “We can use AM now in the short term,” Scot Seitz of the Army Logistics Innovation Agency said at an event Feb. 29 hosted by Deloitte. “I don’t need any metals production capability…I can produce using plastics and I can impact the operational maneuver space by swarming technologies…so that’s a simple example for near-term operational impact,” he said, noting the Army Research Lab’s work in 3D printing small drones for forward deployed soldiers.  

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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