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Army studying replacing thousands of grunts with robots

Jan. 20, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Asoldier drops an unmanned ground vehicle over a wall during an exercise at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in 2010.
Asoldier drops an unmanned ground vehicle over a wall during an exercise at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in 2010. (Army)
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WASHINGTON — The postwar, sequestration-era Army is working on becoming “a smaller, more lethal, deployable and agile force,” according to Gen. Robert Cone, head of the service’s Training and Doctrine Command.

But just how much smaller might come as a surprise.

During remarks at the Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 15, Cone quietly dropped a bomb. The Army, he said, is considering the feasibility of shrinking the size of the brigade combat team from about 4,000 soldiers to 3,000 over the coming years, and replacing the lost soldiers with robots and unmanned platforms.

“I’ve got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of maneuverability, in terms of the future of the force,” he said, adding that he also has “clear guidance to rethink” the size of the nine-man infantry squad.

He mentioned using unmanned ground vehicles that would follow manned platforms, which would require less armor and protection, thereby reducing the weight of a brigade combat team.

Over the past 12 years of war, “in favor of force protection we’ve sacrificed a lot of things,” he said. “I think we’ve also lost a lot in lethality.” And the Army wants that maneuverability, deployability and firepower back.

The Army is already on a path to shrink from 540,000 soldiers to about 490,000 by the end of 2015, and will likely slide further to 420,000 by 2019, according to reports.

Cone said his staff is putting together an advisory panel to look at those issues, including fielding a smaller brigade.

“Don’t you think 3,000 people is probably enough probably to get by” with increased technological capabilities, he asked.

It’s hard to see such a radical change to the makeup of the brigage combat team as anything else than a budget move, borne out of the necessity of cutting the personnel costs that eat up almost half of the service’s total budget.

Cone used the Navy as an example of what the Army is trying to do.

“When you see the success, frankly, that the Navy has had in terms of lowering the numbers of people on ships, are there functions in the brigade that we could automate — robots or manned/unmanned teaming — and lower the number of people that are involved given the fact that people are our major cost,” he said.

Some of Cone’s blue-sky thinking was echoed by Lt. Gen. Keith Walker in a Jan. 6 interview with Defense News.

In what Walker called the “deep future” — about the 2030 to 2040 time frame — he said that “we’ll need to fundamentally change the nature of the force, and that would require a breakthrough in science and technology.”

While Walker, the commander of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, which oversees much of the Army’s modernization and doctrinal changes, didn’t talk about replacing soldiers with robots, he did say the Army wants to revamp its “tooth-to-tail” ratio, or the number of soldiers performing support functions versus those who actually pull triggers.

“Right now our force is roughly two-third tooth and one-third tail, so as we decrease the size of the Army you may end up reducing one-third tooth and two-third tail, but what if you could slide that fulcrum? Maybe it’s one-half to one-half. The point is you get to keep more tooth, more folks that actually conduct operations on the ground and less supporting structure.”

The Army is already heading down that path in the structure of its brigade combat teams, announcing last year that it was adding a third maneuver battalion to each brigade, along with engineering and fires capabilities. It is adding more punch to its brigade combat teams while reducing the number of teams it fields from 45 to 33 by the end of fiscal 2017, while transferring some of those soldiers to the existing brigades. ■

Email: pmcleary@defensenews.com

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