China’s big, bad, gun-slinging robot dogs – and the future of war

During recent military exercises with Cambodia, China unleashed a slew of robotic “dogs” equipped with guns, ready to tackle urban combat operations for Beijing. Images of the menacing machines in action have offered a glimpse into a future where robots could replace manpower in times of war — and fueled debate about what the United States could face in a conflict with China.

“It can serve as a new member in our urban combat operations and replace our members to conduct reconnaissance and identify [the] enemy and hits the target,” a Chinese soldier named Chen Wei said of the newest member of the Chinese military, according to CCTV.

“During our missions, it can transmit real-time reconnaissance images to the command posts,” said another soldier, Yang Shengzhi.

In the exercises, known as China and Cambodia’s Golden Dragon 2024 exercise, the dog is shown jumping, walking and leaning in different directions. Filming takes place while you crouch, move backwards and fire a gun. According to CCTV, it can even plan its own routes and avoid obstacles.

China is not alone in its interest in using robots in warfare. But it is certainly not the first to play this game: the US has been experimenting with robot warfare for decades.

The US military first used robots as a fighting tool in the war in Afghanistan. For example, in 2002, four robots named “Hermes,” “Professor,” “Thing,” and Fester” would enter buildings ahead of troops to scout the area and avoid American casualties. Even then, in addition to twelve cameras, those robots could also hold a grenade launcher and a 12-gauge shotgun. In Iraq, thousands of robots were used on the battlefield.

Chinese and Cambodian soldiers attend a demo of robot fighting dogs.

Since then, the military has expanded the concept. There are countless examples of unmanned aircraft systems (drones) that have already changed the way wars are fought, including the conflict in Ukraine. The US Navy has also worked with unmanned and autonomous ships; Earlier this year, the US military conducted an exercise to strengthen its understanding of how humans, robots and machines work together on the battlefield.

Despite the shock value of the videos from China, its attempt to mount a weapon on its robot is not necessarily as impressive compared to the US, said Benjamin Jensen, senior fellow for future war, gaming and strategy at the Center for Strategic and Strategy. International Studies (CSIS).

“If that’s what they really want to show, we shouldn’t worry too much,” Jensen told The Daily Beast. “It’s a simple assault rifle, from the looks of it it’s quite crudely attached to a fake robot dog,” he added, referring to the fact that the Chinese government’s robot dog certainly looks a lot like Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs, whose capabilities are publicly exhibited in the United States for many years.

“It looks like the worst of the worst knockoffs,” said Jensen, who is also a professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps University School of Advanced Warfighting.

There are benefits to using robots in warfare, and the bet China seems to be making is that using a robot or an autonomous machine to carry out some operations could free up manpower for other operations and reduce human casualties in conflict could reduce.

But China, or any military for that matter, is unlikely to have a full robot army, Jensen warned.

“How does this make it… more or less effective than if you just had a PLA soldier with an assault rifle? In a sentence [it’s] more effective and that it has no fear and that you can maneuver it into position over rough terrain to lay down a fire base,” he said. “But in many ways it’s less effective because who’s doing the spot checks… who’s actually doing ‘SPORTS’ – an acronym for when your gun jams – who’s cleaning the barrel? So it may seem like it’s replacing people, but it’s just changing the person’s role in relation to combat.”

People will likely still operate behind the scenes to coordinate at the tactical level.

‘This is not so Terminator and this is not complete autonomy, this is merely an extension of a human being’s ability to use force in pursuit of political objectives,” Jensen said.

China has traditionally struggled with using robots in complex terrain, said Christian Curriden, a defense analyst at RAND who focuses on China’s PLA research and development and on artificial intelligence applications in the PLA. And that’s where the rubber will meet for robotics in broader military applications.

“It’s one thing to be able to build a robot that can… traverse rugged terrain, whether you use a dog form or just a traditional kind of remote-control car platform – it’s another thing entirely to be able to add a weapon to to stabilize that weapon as it fires, and it’s a whole new level of complexity to integrate that into a combat network,” Jensen added.

But in a match between Chinese and American robot capabilities, China may be better prepared to deploy robots en masse with rapid adoption, Jensen warned. But the US can win when it comes to innovation.

“When it comes to mass use and the possibility of mass adoption in a short period of time, I think China, the People’s Liberation Army, has the edge,” Jensen said. “But if… they are excellent and new creations, I think the US is still head and shoulders the best.”

Robot racing

In the United States, the military has tried to eliminate the need for people to make first contact with enemies in conflict.

“We will never trade blood for first contact again,” Gen. James Rainey, the commanding general of Army Futures Command, told Defense News earlier this year.

A team from the 2nd Civil Engineer Squadron monitors Atom, the robotic dog, while controlling it remotely Nov. 6, 2023, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.A team from the 2nd Civil Engineer Squadron monitors Atom, the robotic dog, while controlling it remotely Nov. 6, 2023, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

A team from the 2nd Civil Engineer Squadron monitors Atom, the robotic dog, while controlling it remotely Nov. 6, 2023, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

Senior Pilot William Pugh/USAF

The so-called ‘Replicator Initiative’ of the Ministry of Defense, led by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), aims to deploy thousands of unmanned vehicles between March and August next year, in order to deploy unmanned systems en masse.

And the program is mainly aimed at combating China, top American officials say.

“Replicator is intended to help us overcome the PRC’s greatest advantage, which is mass. More ships. More missiles. More people,” Assistant Secretary Kathleen Hicks said in comments about the program last year. “But historically, even as we mobilized our economy and manufacturing base, America’s war-winning strategies have rarely been based solely on matching an adversary ship for ship and shot for shot. After all, we do not use our people as cannon fodder like some competitors do. Instead, we outcompete opponents by outsmarting them, outsmarting their strategy and outsmarting them.”

Although top military officials broadcast that they were working on the operation, the project is shrouded in secrecy. The Pentagon for months declined to outline specific capabilities or systems to protect the program from prying eyes.

Last May, Hicks gave a small teaser, revealing the first set of capabilities: unmanned surface vehicles (USV), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and counter-manned aerial systems (c-UAS).

In particular, the military is concentrating its aerial work on AeroVironment Inc., whose Switchblade drones helped Ukraine thwart the Russian invasion. The Pentagon will also make several deals in the maritime domain this summer, Hicks said.

Other plans for maritime and counter-unmanned aerial systems (c-UAS) remain secret.

The Pentagon plans to spend about $1 billion on the program between the 2024 and 2025 budget years.

The new, mysterious project will put more autonomous systems in the line of fire and reduce American casualties in confrontations with adversaries like China. The hope is that the US military can update them more easily and quickly than, say, a tank. Clumsy, outdated and expensive warfare is out; agile, adaptable and cheap is in.

“We must ensure that China’s leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression and concludes: ‘Today is not the day’ – and not just today, but every day, between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049. and beyond,” said Hicks.

There is speculation that the program is aimed at building systems that can ‘swarm’ the battlefield – but as the US military continues to consider and build out its robotic future, thorny decisions about unmanned and autonomous war operations loom.

First, the Pentagon’s acquisition system could lag behind the vision for the Replicator future that DIU envisions because it might not be able to act on the same timeline that Replicator leaders have set out, a military analyst told me. , Bill Greenwalt, to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. in the fall.

Ethical questions also play a major role in the use of robots in war. Boston Dynamics, along with several other robotics companies, signed a pledge years ago that they would not weaponize their advanced robots.

The creator of the NYPD’s gruesome robot police dog, linked to Saudi Crown Prince MBS

There are many questions about cybersecurity for militaries with unmanned, unmanned and robotic systems in times of crisis. Potential hackers and adversaries could exploit robots on the battlefield, where the machines could be vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, data breaches, or any number of cyberattacks on robots’ sensors or communications.

And in a matchup in China’s backyard, Replicator might not perform well given the scope required to operate in the Indo-Pacific region, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

But time is running out to get ahead of competitors and adversaries, warned Gen. Mark Milley, who recently retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s top military officer.

“Geostrategic competition and rapidly advancing technology are fundamentally changing the nature of war. Our opportunity to ensure we maintain a lasting competitive advantage is fleeting,” Milley wrote in a report this fall. “Our window of opportunity to ensure we maintain a lasting competitive advantage is closing.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast’s biggest scoops and scandals delivered straight to your inbox. Register now.

Stay informed and get unlimited access to the Daily Beast’s unparalleled reporting. Subscribe now.

Leave a Comment