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Grapeshot and Grenadiers: Winning the Counter-Robot Battle

Abstract image of digitised human face in a globe, chain link fence overlay with hole--robot 'breaking free'.

‘The military that is able to figure it out and… that can weave together the old and new, not just old and new technology but old and new thinking, they will be the ones that win.’ (Peter Singer)

Inevitable hardening of military robotics suggests that development of war munitions won’t be immune to the impact of mechatronic warfare. Like the almost indestructible killer robot immortalised in the popular science-fiction franchise Terminator, near-future military robots portend to be tenacious and difficult to kill with contemporary weapons and ammunition. Hence, implications of human soldiers engaging in close combat with smart robotic fighting systems are profound and will be comparable to the evolution of anti-tank munitions. So while credible anthropomorphic battle androids seem distant, early indicators and warnings of armed humanoid bots exist if you consider the FEDOR and Kungas Projects.

Akin to other robust military systems, combat robots will feature double or triple redundancy of critical subsystems, so they can sustain considerable battle damage and remain operational. It’s likely they will employ protective subsystems to enhance survivability. Defence algorithms have already been invented that synchronise with sensors to detect incoming threats, which in turn trigger projectile avoidance vectors. Robot sensors may include acoustic, thermal, optical and LIDAR to account for multiple battlefield hazards and evasive manoeuvre accuracy.

Mechatronic Close Combat

Evolution of bipedal robot technology by Boston Dynamics is a compelling glimpse of what could manifest in terms of highly lethal robotic soldiers designed for close combat. If robots can now be programmed to conduct gymnastics routines, they can be programmed to fight.

Small-arms, grenades and bayonets are optimised to disable human combatants and were never designed or intended to destroy intelligent robotic fighting systems; enter a new class of battlefield threat that will require bespoke ‘anti-robot’ responses. Imagine humanoid bots grouped in combat teams, reinforced with heavy support weapons and configured with machine learning battle tactics—a potent force likely to be protected with composite or shear hardening armour. Hand-held ballistic shields may also feature, including variations of ancient shield defence tactics—such as Roman Testudo or Greek Phalanx—which robots could employ to advance under fire. Robots may be armed with a range of direct fire weapons, including edged or blunt secondary weapons. Robotic fighting systems advancing close enough to engage in hand-to-hand combat could yield particularly grim consequences. Humans would probably be no match for the crushing mechanical grip of an ‘anti-personnel battle bot’ with lightning fast reflexesMedieval weapons like swords, spears, axes, spike flails and maces may return to future battlefields, but wielded by synthetic warriors.

Battle between human and robotic soldiers for the first time could be comparable to adverse psychological effects that tanks had on troops in the First World War, who lacked specialist anti-tank weapons and anti-armour training.

Consider a battalion of ‘ground combat mechs’ attacking a human infantry company in a defensive position. The robots, unconstrained by munitions’ safety distances like human soldiers are, could assault right up to the forward trenches while the infantry company was suppressed by artillery fire, thereby permitting a rapid break-in. Any counter-penetration force could be neutralised as the assaulting robot echelon runs through its own artillery, falling on the defended area—a scenario where the human occupied battle position is swiftly overrun.

The potential for morale dislocation and shock effect of mechatronic close combat experienced by Australian soldiers in a future high-tech conflict cannot be understated.

Injury by Design

Robots are already being developed to conduct life-saving surgery, so it is possible combat bots could have subroutines capable of inflicting surgical-like injuries. The type and extent of injury delivered would depend on the mission, as robots could be tasked to perform specific mission-related effects upon their human adversaries: kill, incapacitate or capture. Precision injuries, some with results only fit for scenes in a horror movie may overwhelm casualty handling capacities and induce higher numbers of combat stress reactions. Psychological casualties may also be induced if robotic attacks are accompanied with acoustic effects, designed to instil fear and panic, akin to Stuka Dive Bomber sirens of the Second World War.

But in contrast to unthinkable precision wounds that soldiers with mortal agency may suffer in mechatronic battles, tactical robots will also be capable of devastating mass casualty events. With their engineered agility, speed and enhanced load-bearing capacity, suicide bots carrying ‘backpack bombs’ with 50kg or more of ball-bearing lined high-explosives may be encountered. Robot-borne demolitions will be like the highly effective satchel charges used to attack strong points and tanks during the Second World War, only they will be substantially more powerful charges and difficult to defend against.

Urban close combat could be far more deadly than it is now with cunning robotic threats such as these.

Killing Killer Robots

‘Give them a whiff of grapeshot.’ (Napoleon Bonaparte)

Lasers and jammers could turn out to be part of an enterprise riposte to original robotic threats, but this is an assumption with considerable risk attached. Laser beam effectiveness can be limited by vegetation, urban structures and inclement weather, so lasers may not be the primary robot mitigation in all seasons and all terrain. Additionally, electromagnetic and directed energy weapons have been developed but hardening and jamming resistance of future classes of robot may limit the effectiveness of these weapons. Soft-kill systems might be developed, but I contend that in the chaos of close combat the primary means of defeating a robotic assailant will be kinetic. Likewise, standard ball ammunition (bullets) will not do the job. Rifle fire won’t penetrate robot passive armour and may ricochet or pass through other unprotected areas, causing only limited system injury. Thus, substantially more stopping power will be vital.

Heavy steel balls—grapeshot—could seriously damage a combat robot. Destructive mechanics would occur due to high shock pressures generated on impact that are orders of magnitude higher than material yield strengths, warping and fracturing anthropoid robot frames.

Grapeshot was used with devastating effect against advancing troops in the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars. The destructive power of multi-projectile munitions proved its utility but went out of favour as high-explosive artillery munitions became the norm and tactics changed. Therefore—noting small-arms could be ineffective against armoured mechatronic targets—grapeshot fired from portable ‘anti-robot’ guns may be worth research and development effort. 

Increasing the provision of grenade launcher systems will also be essential, along with new natures of ‘anti-robot’ grenades. Circa 40mm Anti-Robot Grenades could include: Anti-Robot Corrosive Acid (ARCA) and Anti-Robot Explosive Penetrators (AREP). ARCA rounds may harm affected robot components and blind external sensors. An acid grenade detonating near a robot might disrupt its ability to detect targets or coordinate with flanking robots. Alternatively, harpoon-like grenades that lodge an explosive charge within a target robot structure could blow it apart from the inside. Inventive anti-robot munitions would complement extant explosive and phosphorous rounds, but they may require lethality upgrade.

To give soldiers a fighting chance, powered exoskeletons that enhance strength and agility may become compulsory augmentation in an increasingly mechatronic battlefield.

Anti-Robot Battalions

Raising Machine Gun Battalions again, but equipping them with heavy machine guns firing armour piercing tracer (AP-T) rounds, could be extra risk reduction against robot attacks.

The Australian Army has in the past established Machine Gun Battalions to support infantry formations in combat. Also, at the Battle of Samichon in Korea, an Australian medium machine gun team and U.S. Marines at ‘The Hook’ repelled repeated human-wave assaults from Chinese infantry, who charged beyond danger-close through their own artillery barrages. Effective machine gun employment at ‘The Hook’ is instructive in terms of defeating robot swarm attacks indifferent to supporting artillery risks.

Heavy machine gun fire from ‘Anti-Robot’ force structures could complement tailored anti-robot munitions. When ripping through human bodies, bullet shock waves extend beyond the ballistic path to produce deadly cavitation. Thus, heavy AP-T rounds may penetrate robot passive armour, causing interior spall damage, analogous to lethal bullet cavitation in humans.

Mechatronic Massacre Mitigation

Close combat with hardy and pitiless robotic soldiers will be a new kind of brutal that could traumatise future generations of war veterans and perniciously shape societies’ perceptions of robots. How people feel about robots matters as there may be no industry in the future that won't be using robotics. Therefore, adapting to what the future may bring will be a precarious balance of judgement, foresight and risk management. Popular science-fiction becoming a reality is now a normalised condition, so when robots optimised for battle are deployed in the first drone war, it would be ideal if soldiers are already properly prepared and equipped.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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