Army and Marines: Leave the Shooting to Humans


U.S. ground combat forces like the idea of self-controlling, unmanned robots on the battlefield – as long as they don’t have big guns mounted on them.

Both the Army and Marine Corps rank autonomy among its future priorities for unmanned ground vehicles. The Army has been trying to develop multi-wheeled UGVs for carrying extra ammo, packs, water, fuel and batteries capable of following behind formations of troops on their home.

If they are ever perfected, these robotic mules could significantly reduce the heavy loads infantrymen have to carry to survive in combat.

But when it comes to programming missile-launcher toting robots to fight on their own, most Army and Marine officials want to leave the shooting to humans.

“When it comes to killing people, they believe as I do, there needs to be a man in the loop to make that decision,” Bill Powers, of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, told an audience at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International 2013 conference Tuesday.

“Here’s the biggest fear — somebody is going to arm a system like that and they are going to program in what it needs to do and it’s going to start shooting.”

Marine officials agreed that any lethal system has to have a man in the loop controlling it, said Marine Lt. Col. Michael Hixson, the combat engineer chief information officer for the Marine Corps’ Unmanned Ground Systems.

“I think that is why we got away from land mines,” he said. “They’re a good analogy because we can’t control them.”

Combat units are comfortable using remote weapon stations, a system where the gunner sits protected down inside an armored vehicle and controls the weapon system with a computer and a joystick.

“The question is how far do we stretch that remoteness; do we do it from a guard tower? Do we do it through a mobile platform?” said Col. Stuart Hatfield, branch chief of Soldier Systems and Unmanned Ground Systems for Army G8.

“A luxury that the air guys have that we don’t is that they are shooting down to the ground so if they miss their target they hit the ground. When you shoot from the ground to another point on the ground and if you miss the target, that weapon system continues to go.”

Even with the man in the loop, there are a lot of new risks that come with arming an unmanned vehicle, Hatfield said.

“You don’t want to miss the target that you have identified and hit something beyond that whether it is a civilian or anything else out there that can become collateral damage.”


About the Author

Matt Cox
Matthew Cox is a reporter at He can be reached at
  • Lance

    Good news. Robots cannot think and move as fast as a human and cannot see and feel as a human can all the senses are need to win and survive war.

    Sorry Tech lover here, no T-800 for you this decade.

    • Leroy

      Sorry to disappoint you, but a sidewinder missile is a robot and the day usain bolt breaks mach 2 has yet to arrive

      • Jsmith

        I’m not sure I consider it a robot, but in any case it is launched by a human pilot.

        • Bernard

          It’s also a “fire and forget” weapon, meaning that after the human has told it what target to kill the human is no longer in the equation.

          Why can’t we do the same with UGVs and UCAVs?

    • David

      Is that why the phalanx system is automated?

      A computer can’t think to this point, but a computer can process information much faster than you can. For giggles multiply 62745 * 98758 see how long it takes you to get the answer then use a calculator assuming the calculator’s register is large enough.

      • Dustin

        clearly you haven’t tried using Siri for anything more complex than math.

  • Stephen N Russell

    One can control guns via remote control alone & maybe use robotics to clear jams.
    very doable for some guns, rockets & missiles alone.

    • Bad Bob

      If a two-bit hacker can hack a Toyota Prius for Forbes Magazine and have more control over the car than the driver, then a Chinese tiger team can surely hack a robot or semi-robot weapons platform and turn it against us.
      This is a very real concern. Autonomic weapons systems simply must not be deployed.


    The Air Force caved in years ago. So. yeah.

  • blight_

    Bolo of the Line, Dinochrome Brigade.

    It’s just a matter of time.

    • captain jhd

      How many people have caught your literary reference? If I am not mistaken, it was Keith Laumer, right?

  • John

    Agree with Army/Marines here. Drones have weaknesses. They can get hacked or operating station captured and be used against us. EMP weapons are coming in the future, drones can’t counter that. Other things as well including what lance said.

    • David

      You can harden electronics to EMP bursts, the military already does this with certain systems. You can encrypt communications. However, a person should be in the loop.

    • isaiah

      They can actually be fitted with emp resistant shielding so that the pulses don’t reach the electronics.

  • loneskate

    Off-topic but there is a problem with DT’s submission form.

    “F35 fighter would be clubbed like baby seals in combat” =>

  • fanboy

    you don’t need guns on the robots for them to be useful. the first Predators weren’t armed and have proven to be invaluable

    an unmanned vehicle driving ahead of manned vehicles can act as a scout, smoking out EIDs, mines and ambushes

    a little remote control car with a remote camera on it would cost less than $100, and can be used to drive into a house and smoke out EIDs, mines and ambushes

    • hibeam

      Emprovised Imploding Devices?

  • rcbusmc

    Surveillance and target elimination have to be controlled from separate platforms. Currently, Combat Operations Centers are overloaded with verification requirements in order to inhibit collateral damage, This results in many possible targets being able to egress from the engagement area before fires can be brought onto them. In some regards in the current fight , this is a good thing, While the man on the ground may be calling for an airstrike to take out a guy plinking at him from 800 meters away with an AK, it does not help the accomplishment of the mission to do so, A strike of will cost more time, money and resources that the end result will achieve. Thus the mission will be denied. While many pundit’s deplore this, killing every threat will never win our current war. It is a delicate balence to be struck and oftentimes COC’s can get it wrong.

  • rcbusmc

    Hovever, we are not always in a limited war / COIN enviroment and in this regards automation must be studied and perhaps even equipped, even if we keep it artificially switched off. Even now we have many systems ,some quite old, that are capable of full automation- Such as the 1970’s era AEGIS cruisers and destroyers, One such equuipped warship earned the name ROBO Cruiser for its actions in the Persian Gulf, when it splashed a Iranian passenger jet in the 1980’s. The Automated systems must always have a man within the loop in order to shut them down, yet 99.9 percent of the time in a total war they will function as designed.

  • rcbusmc

    But, who forsee’s a total war ever happening again… (yet we prepare for the worst, not the most likely senario) any fight we involve ourselves in will have innocents intermixed and it will require a discerning level of target discrimination, to include letting legitimate targets pass in order to not cause great harm to innocents in order to allow our public to remain positive about any military action undertaken.
    The same will hold true for those forces using Automation, We currently have pilots flying drones in Nevada, that are launched by crews in Kuwait, that are targeting hostiles in Afghanistan. It can’t really get anymore remote than that, Yet the person who owns the ordanance dropped in Afghanistan is not the pilot in Nevada, it’s the Commander on the ground where ever the act is taking place. That ownership must always be maintained.

  • hibeam

    Hey Matt, here comes an RPG, jump out and engage it ole buddy.

  • Bernard
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  • Brian B Mulholland

    “Bolo of the line, Dinochrome Brigade” ….. Blight, I do think we had similar taste in reading, growing up. That made me laugh.

  • John Murray

    Supporters of armed, robotic combat vehicles simply ignore that this year hackers demonstrated that they can take over your car and possibly your pacemaker. Hackers have managed to break into virtually every protected system on Earth and you don’t think they can figure out a way to do the same with wirelessly controlled armed robots?
    What do you think is cheaper, a sophisticated, armed robot that you are constantly upgrading software protections on, or a team of hackers dedicated to shutting down or taking over your robot?

    • David

      Pacemakers and cars aren’t encrypted. Yes, it is possible to hack an encrypted system, but it takes a very high level of talent. For instance the predator video feeds that were allegedly hacked were not encrypted.

      What you may see in the movies and real life are very different.

      • Bernard
        • JCitizen

          Oh? I saw it on 60 minutes – the guy used the On Star system to break into the computer in the vehicle – I forget what he made it do, but it was pretty scary. If they wanted to they could issue a auto-park command whilst you’re going 70 miles an hour! The police probably wouldn’t have a clue why the driver lost control of the vehicle.

          • blight_

            Indeed, that’s because On Star is probably wired into the PCM. It probably has elevated privileges to do things such as unlock your doors, track your location and kill the car engine in auto chases.

    • Nathan

      My company includes a large IT Security division. Hackers are clearly losing the battle against encryption – against military grade encryption it would take the current worlds fastest super-computer over a billion years to crack. And the encryption code changes periodically.

      When our “white-hackers” go after targets, more and more they are finding that humans are the weak point. They can be easily tricked, bribed, are lazy, and are predictable.

      Yet on a monthly basis we hear of insurgents in our ranks, soldiers going rogue, or in some cases even have been found aiding the enemy.

      Not to mention how to win a war in the modern era has proven to be political. When too many of our men die, popular opinion is swayed, and we withdraw. But if a machine gets blown up, the no one is going to bat an eye-lid.

      Simply put; human problem is far bigger and just as damaging, and with fewer clear answers, and this is what shouldn’t be ignored. I’m not advocating rolling out “robo-cop” and pulling people out of the picture – humans will always have a place. But we can’t pretend that robots will not have a place either.

  • Wolfmurman

    DOD knows they have to try something. Next shootin’ war, they know that most Americans won’t get off their fat butts for their country, never mind allow their precious baby boys and girls to enlist. “HELL NO, we won’t GO! Send in the ‘bots! Send in the ‘bots!” Semper Fi.

  • Tom Utech

    Anybody remember the original Robo Cop ?
    End of story….

  • Chieftain

    To much backward thinking. If we don’t use the robots, who will? If an enemy, is using a vast aray of robots against our troops, we could be in very deep Ca-Ca.

    If we choose to not use robots, and that could be very resonable, what are we going to do to defend against an enemy that chose to use robots??

    That is the question.

    Go figure.

    • Jubal Biggs

      Very simple. We continue the existing up-armored infantry trend and completely encase our infantry in enough ceramic to stop any typical infantry weapon. This is heavy, so we use something like the BLEEX system or any of a half-dozen existing robotic exoskeletons currently in use around the world (including in Japan and Israel) to support the armor. The robotic exoskeleton allows us to mount heavier weapons on our infantryman and you could eventually see something more equivalent to light vehicle weapons on a guy still capable of rolling, ducking behind something, and hiding. This is all tied in with several small remote drones that feed in constant data about the environment, and our infantryman now becomes something rather more. Increased weapon ranges push out our formations, increased comms allow us to cover more ground with the same number of guys, and the cost of the system warrants limits on total force size. High levels of training are mandatory, since you could easily injure someone doing something stupid in such a suit of armor, but obviously, no more so than a vehicle. I remember how we started to see ceramic armor for the first time in combat, and how our guys got more and more bulletproof. New materials make this possible, the competitive nature of war will make it necessary and inevitable. Wait a decade or two and you’ll see a modern version of a medieval knight carrying around a lightweight .50 cal and commanding a half dozen drone “squires”. -THAT’s what we do.

  • Tom

    If they use robots, we use hackers.
    Robots are limited instruments. Humans are the ultimate computer, capable of in situ analysis without megabits, megadollars and hardware invested. And, yes, I am one of those pussy Marines, but never said “Hell no, we won;t go.”

    • blight_

      Undisciplined, un-automous soldiers are little better than drones. For instance, the Red Army.

  • Lewis Smart

    If combat capable robots do prove viable down the track, and the US for whatever reason chooses not to make use of them, the US may find itself at a disadvantage.

  • Cpl. Z. USMC

    Remember back in Nam when the enemy would sneak past the new guy that was supposed to be one watch but was sleeping, then turned all the claymores around and pointed them towards YOU? I do believe any 16 year old could get the BOT to turn around and do the same thing with a decent computer program.

    • blight_


      If it were that easy, we’d be doomed.

  • DB Cooper

    Let an enemy hack its software through the radio user ineterface and it will kill a hell of a lot of americans. Leave the killing to a HUMAN.

    • thethederg

      I’m sure the squad leader would have some sort of fail safe device on him,…

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  • Robert W. Gonzales

    Having served in Vietnam as a combat infantry Marine. Command and Control can be a double edged sword. Conflicts that have followed up to the present day are examples of politicians getting our Armed Forces into conflicts in just about every corner of the world. In doing so people without actual combat experience make up the Rules of Engagement (ROE). Winning hearts and Minds is the goal (political solution) not a combat solution. Negotiations have failed that’s the reason the USA is sending in ground troops and support elements. Closing with and destroying (Killing) our enemies is the PLAN OF THE DAY. Not allowing gangsters and idiots to hide behind women and children. Which by the way are No DIFFERENT than the Viet Cong of Vietnam.
    To the point: Soldiers, Airman, Coast Guardsmen, Sailors and Marines who are at the front have a REALTIME understanding of the battlefield, which someone in Florida, California or any other Combat Command Center across the pond can’t get a grasp of.
    If the GRUNTS are ALLOWED to make the CALL, doing their JOB, it doesn’t matter if it’s a robot or Billy Bob pulling the trigger


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