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From Tanks to Robots

Reimagining land warfare through technology

Australian Army soldier from the School of Armour remotely controls an autonomous M113 AS4 optionally crewed combat vehicle (OCCV) at the Majura Training Area, Canberra.

Robotic and Autonomous Systems represent the potential future of land warfare where militaries can effectively strike their opponents while removing humans from the conflict zone.

Looking back at his experiences leading up to the Second World War, in The Gathering Storm Winston Churchill quipped that, “the War Office is always preparing for the last war.” Churchill was chiding the tendency of military planners not to appreciate the potential of new technologies in war, and not to adapt their strategies accordingly. While it might take time to recognise the full potential of Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS), Army should not make the mistake of assuming that our current land capabilities represent the future of land warfare.

In order to avoid the same trap Churchill was warning against, it is worth examining one of the key examples of the evolution of land warfare: the tank. The tank represented both a transformation and a tragically missed opportunity for land warfare after the appalling and wasteful attrition of the First World War. When first deployed onto the battlefield, the technology and tactics of tank warfare did not live up to expectations. However, their potential for transforming warfare away from the conventional practice of entrenched and defensive combat quickly became evident.   

The experience of Churchill’s contemporary, General Charles De Gaulle, offers a cautionary tale of the consequences of failing to adapt when technology transforms war. As a junior officer, De Gaulle came away from the trenches determined to break away from the established French military thinking that dictated static defence reinforced by sheer numbers of soldiers; the ‘nation in arms’ concept. While the French general staff did not see the potential for armored warfare, De Gaulle developed and advocated a military strategy built around rapidly deployable and highly maneuverable concentrated armored units. Judging that the established strategies were sufficient, and that tanks would (at best) have a future as a supporting capability, the French military approached the Second World War without the capabilities that De Gaulle envisioned, and which the German Army had largely adopted.

De Gaulle recognised that land warfare had to evolve in response to new technology and the associated need for technological solutions in the battlespace. Prior to the First World War, the classical European conception of land warfare centered on large infantry forces fighting in a limited space with artillery support at a limited range. Heavy artillery increased the depth at which opposing forces could inflict damage on each other, and the introduction of machine guns on the frontline increased the danger to attacking infantry forces. The First World War was fought by the French despite the changes brought about by these technological advances. However, if the French had failed to learn the lessons of armored warfare during WWI, the German Panzer forces of the Second World War demonstrated their effectiveness beyond doubt, cementing their relevance to even the most reluctant French military thinkers.

Looking forward, almost 80 years since the end of the Second World War, technology has transformed the nature of warfare nowhere more so than in the domain of land combat. Much like the changes that led strategists to prioritise mobile armored units in order to retain the advantages of speed and firepower, the transformation underway at present also calls for new technologies and concepts of warfighting.

Before considering how land combat capabilities should evolve, it is necessary to understand the major changes redefining warfare. Specifically, in recent years there have been many technological advances across the domain of land combat, ranging from improved precision targeting, strike range and personal protective equipment. But the most significant change is the modern phenomena of battlespace awareness and visibility. Never before have modern militaries enjoyed such capacity to achieve multi-spectrum awareness of land terrain, enemy forces, supply lines and supporting infrastructure. Through satellites, electronic surveillance and aerial monitoring (to name a few such capabilities), modern militaries can maintain near constant awareness of the locations of an opponent’s forces; diminishing if not quite eliminating the capacity for tactical surprise.

During the Second World War Battle of the Bulge, the German Army was able to launch an offensive attack involving 1,500 tanks and upwards of 400, 000 troops, taking the Allies completely by surprise. Today, it would be practically impossible to achieve such a feat. Barring an extraordinary failure of intelligence and surveillance, a land force of that size (and even smaller) could not mobilise undetected, let alone deploy without its movements being observed.

The capabilities required to effect battlespace awareness are no longer the sole preserve of Australia and its allies. Potential adversaries are building the capabilities that will allow them too to gain a complete picture of their foes’ military forces. Recognising that the future of modern warfare will be shaped by militaries that all enjoy maximum awareness of their opponents’ forces, there is a debate to be had about the utility of deploying manned land forces in combat. A force that can’t conceal itself can’t achieve tactical surprise. Opponents will inevitably be aware of the force’s capabilities and direction, will have ample time to impede its advance, and will be able to target the force with their own strike capabilities. An example is when the conventional Iraqi forces were confronted by US led multinational forces in two wars.  As an early example of this military technological transformation in action, the coalition enjoyed overwhelming advantages in its surveillance capabilities. The essential point here is that, through greater battlespace awareness, future militaries will possess the means to inflict greater damage on their opponents, increasing the risk to exposed ground forces.  

Future manned ground forces will be confronted with more capable opponents, and will operate under greater exposure to enemy capabilities. In response, military planners need to confront the increasing likelihood of more lethal fighting conditions and to balance the associated risk in a new way. Seeking to develop means to disrupt an opponent’s battlespace awareness in order to maintain present warfighting strategies is one option. But there is also a potential technological solution that involves, not simply supplementing, but revolutionising land combat.

Reducing the exposure and risk faced by soldiers in the field has been a priority for modern armies since the First World War. The introduction of the tank into warfare served the dual purpose of achieving a maneuverable means of striking power while at the same time reducing the casualties suffered by infantry forces in previous wars. The next transformation should look to a future in which manned capabilities are replaced by unmanned capabilities. RAS are being increasingly used for specific missions to reduce the risk to soldiers such as bomb disposal, mine clearance, low-level aerial surveillance and drone strikes. While these are examples of RAS being used in a supplemental fashion, there is strong evidence that they can become the core of future land warfare strategy much like the tank was.

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War provided evidence of a military exploiting Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to their tactical advantage against a conventional enemy with equal capabilities. Although the Azerbaijani military certainly utilised conventional capabilities and tactics, their use of UAVs for surveillance and strike demonstrated their capacity to provide fire power while reducing the exposure of troops in battle.

The future use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) represents the logical extension of remotely guided and autonomous military capabilities and the further removal of personnel from the battlespace. Unmanned military combat systems that retain the ability to traverse vast areas and strike enemy forces will also allow for more expansive deployment options as the degree of human exposure to enemy fire will be reduced. A military force that has a zero (or a very minimal human component) can be deployed against a more superior force as a means of distraction. This will allow other units to engage in more favorable (and less risky) engagements thus reducing causalities.

At present, it appears unlikely and unworkable for any military to commit to the concept of an almost totally unmanned force.  Nevertheless, UAVs have proven their capacity in air-to-ground strikes and UGVs are fast in development. As a controlling mechanism, Artificial Intelligence is growing increasingly sophisticated and will further enhance the capacity for more conventional military capabilities to be converted into unmanned systems.

Whatever the military technologies of the future are capable of, it is essential that their use is given full consideration and that no option for major redesigns of force structures and battlefield tactics is discounted. Churchill and De Gaulle both learnt through bitter experience that the 19th Century tactics adopted in the First World War were out of date and resulted in tremendous human waste for little military gain. De Gaulle then labored, unsuccessfully, to convince his military to abandon past practices and to recognise the potential of rapid armored warfare built around the tank, a capability that did not live up to its potential in the First World War but by the Second certainly had. Unmanned capabilities are growing in use and sophistication and represent the transformation of land combat to a point where humans are removed from the battlespace while retaining and, indeed, enhancing Army’s ability to deter its opponents.

This article is a winning entry in the 2022 AARC Short Writing Competition, 'Transforming Land Power'.

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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