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The US Army Research Lab has been increasingly focusing on fighting land wars against far more technologically sophisticated adversaries than it has in the past several decades.
In the coming months, the Lab will fund new programs related to highly (but not fully) autonomous drones and robots that can withstand adversary electronic warfare operations. The Lab will also fund new efforts to develop battlefield communications and sensing networks that perform well against foes with advanced electronic warfare capabilities.
Russia has invested heavily in anti-access / area denial technologies meant to keep U.S. forces out of certain areas. “There are regions in Donbass (Ukraine) where no electromagnetic communications—including radio, cell phone, and television—work,” says a CSIS report. “Electronic warfare is the single largest killer of Ukrainian systems by jamming either the controller or GPS signals.”
Defenseone.com reports that in the coming months, the Army Research Lab will set forth on new research programs to counter these A2/AD systems. One thrust will be equipping drones and other autonomous systems with bigger brains and better networking so that they can function even when an enemy jams their ability to radio back to a human controller for direction. That’s the idea behind the Distributed and Collaborative Intelligent Systems and Technology program, which will experiment with robots packed with much more onboard processing.
The amount of onboard processing should be sufficient to allow the to be highly independent. It would still call home but the dialogue between the and the operator would much more closely resemble an exchange between a commander and soldier, and less a human steering a thing.
Future Army drones and robots of all types “should be able to function to provide not raw data but information, and, in a sense, decisions about what needs to happen on the battlefield. When you don’t have bandwidth, when you’re under cyber attack, when you’re being jammed. That’s the problem we’re trying to address,” said Philip Perconti, the Lab Director.
A second program called the Internet of Battlefield Things seeks to put to military use “the research that’s going on in the commercial space” on distributed sensors and Internet-connected devices.
The CSIS report says that United States already enjoys asymmetrical advantage over adversaries like China and Russia in the way it deploys sensors and networks to maintain a view of the battlefield, or situational awareness. But that’s also part of the problem: “Recognizing this threat, the Russians have made targeting and countering U.S. situational awareness systems a high priority of its battlefield [electronic warfare] activities, necessitating co-united U.S. investment to address and stay ahead of Russian counters,” the report says.
The challenge for the U.S. Army now is to rethink battlefield sensor networks in a way that acknowledges that rapidly advancing commercial capabilities are eroding U.S. advantage.