Drones can move much faster than ground robots, but they can’t carry as much firepower as a ground vehicle of similar size and cost. Credit: ZDNet.

How big a difference does it make when you reinforce foot troops with drones and ground robots? You get about a 10–fold increase in combat power, according to a recent Army wargame.

“Their capabilities were awesome,” said Army Capt. Philip Belanger, a Ranger Regiment and Stryker Brigade veteran who commanded a robot-reinforced platoon in nearly a dozen computer-simulated battles at the Fort Benning’s Maneuver Battle Lab. “We reduced the risk to US forces to zero, basically, and still were able to accomplish the mission.”

According to a special report from Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. in Breaking Defense, that mission involved dislodging a defending company of infantry, about 120 soldiers, with a single platoon of just 40 attackers on foot.

That’s a task that would normally be assigned to a battalion of over 600. In other words, instead of the minimum 3:1 superiority in numbers that military tradition requires for a successful attack, Belanger’s simulated force was outnumbered 1:3.

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When they ran the scenario without futuristic technologies, using the infantry platoon as it exists today, “that did not go well for us,” Belanger said drily.

But that was just the warm-up, getting the captain and his four human subordinates – three lieutenants and a staff sergeant, each commanding a simulated squad – familiar with the Army’s OneSAF software. That’s a complex physics-based model so fine-grained it can assess whether an individual (simulated) soldier is killed, wounded or unscathed in any given attack.

OneSAF also strictly limits the amount of information each human player gets. They only know what their simulated soldiers on the battlefield could, so it replicates the fog of war, if not the fear, the report said.

Wargame organizers then added dozens of unmanned systems to the simulation. The immediate impact was on what Belanger and his team could see. Instead of being limited to the immediate field of view of their simulated soldiers, they could send the drones ahead to scout. Instead of being able to engage the enemy about 500 meters away (not quite a third of a mile) – or less in dense terrain like a jungle or a city – they could spot and attack them from 5,000 meters (more than three miles).

“It was awesome to be able to increase that zone of where we knew exactly what was going on, without being right on top of the enemy,” Belanger told me. “We were able to pretty much control the amount of area that probably a battalion-minus would have been able to control, with just one platoon.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy to adapt to the new tools.

“The first time we used them was definitely a learning curve,” Belanger said. Drones can move much faster than ground robots, but they can’t carry as much firepower as a ground vehicle of similar size and cost, the report said.

So, at first the fliers rushed ahead, found the enemy position, and then had to wait for the ground units to catch up. Meanwhile the opposing players, controlling the enemy force, noticed the drones and, although they weren’t able to shoot them down – something unlikely to be true with, say, the Russians – they could use the time to ready their defenses. Belanger’s manned-unmanned team still won, but not as decisively as they wanted to.

“Our UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems] were able to identify exactly where enemy were, but we were unable to kill them without our ground vehicles,” he said. “You have to figure out how you’re going to mass combat power,” rather than attack piecemeal.

“As we did more and more iterations, we were able to build in more control measures and have more of … a human in the loop,” Belanger told me. “After about the second or third run with all the advanced systems,” he said, the human players were able to coordinate the air and ground robots in a single synchronized assault.

Coordinating these high-tech combined arms – aerial drones, unmanned ground vehicles, and human foot soldiers – was a lot more complex than leading an ordinary infantry platoon, Belanger said. While young troops who grew up on video know how to use computer control interfaces, they may not have the tactical experience required.

“Usually a platoon leader is a brand-new second or first lieutenant. Are they the right person for that job?” he asked. “[Should] a captain be leading a 40-person platoon” – as Belanger did in the wargame – “or is it a subject matter expert we don’t currently have in the Army?”

The technologies Capt. Belanger’s platoon used in the simulation don’t exist in real life – yet. But they are all feasible in the fairly near term, insisted Ted Maciuba, a retired Army officer who’s now deputy director of robotic requirements at Fort Benning’s Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate.

“These are things that industry and the Army labs said they could do,” Maciuba said.

What’s next? The Army wants to build actual prototypes of select technologies for a series of real-world field tests and experiments in 2020. A formal Request For Proposals – informed by the white papers and the wargame – will come out shortly, he said, with proposals to be submitted in January.

Working with Georgia Tech Research Institute, the Army will try out the individual prototypes, then integrate them together into a series of increasingly complex experiments, culminating in a full “system of systems” field exercise this coming September.

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