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Why Australian Army Needs Robot Tanks


So why are robots so important for
Australia? Because of Australia’s peculiar circumstances: a vast continent,
with a relatively small population clustered on the coasts, and a relatively
small military.


by Michael Peck


Australian
Army is getting into robot military vehicles. It is joining a host of nations
that are developing or have even deployed armed autonomous patrol vehicles,
robot trucks, and even remote-controlled tanks. The club includes the United
States, Russia, China, Israel, and various European nations.


But of
them all, robotic combat vehicles may make the most sense for Australia.


“Greater
reliance on autonomous systems and unmanned platforms makes a great deal of
sense, given the small size of our military,” says Malcolm Davis, a senior
analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.


In
October, the Australian Defense Force (ADF)
signed a contract 
with German firm Rheinmetall to develop autonomous
technology for ground vehicles. The effort will focus on the Boxer Combat Reconnaissance
Vehicle 
(CRV), a Rheinmetall-designed, 38-ton wheeled armored vehicle.


Those
worried about robot tanks roaming the outback can rest easy for now. “There are
currently no plans to automate the Boxer vehicle,” the Australian Department of
Defense replied in response to questions from the National Interest. The
ADF is currently focusing on three areas: persistent autonomy to design systems
that can function amid the chaos of combat, human-autonomy teaming so that
humans and robots can work together, and—perhaps most important—machine
cognition.


Machine
cognition is “how to make autonomous systems smart enough to operate in
military environments. This entails research into machine learning, artificial
intelligence, symbolic reasoning, planning, the theory of mind, social agents,
and complex decision-making,” according to the Australian military.


That’s
broadly in line with what other advanced nations are doing. For now, at least,
no nation is planning—or is disclosing if, in fact, it is—building an army of
killer robots that fight independently of human control. But Russia has its
remote-controlled Uran-9 unmanned ground vehicle, a tank-like machine that
saw combat in Syria, though with poor results. The U.S. Army is developing kits
that can convert tanks and trucks into autonomous vehicles, while even little
Estonia 
has developed a missile-armed robotic tank killer.


So why
are robots so important for Australia? Because of Australia’s peculiar
circumstances: a vast continent, with a relatively small population clustered
on the coasts, and with a relatively small military. Then add to that mixture
Australia’s role as a Pacific power that uneasily rubs shoulders with China, a
regional South Pacific power with interests in places likes Indonesia and New
Guinea, and international commitments that include troops in Afghanistan.


“I
think if you look at our operational environment, where these things [robots]
are likely to be used, it varies widely,” Davis says.


“If we consider their application from
low-mid intensity stabilization ops in fragile states, through to potentially
high-intensity warfighting as part of expeditionary coalition operations, that
takes in a vast range of geographies – from South Pacific through East Asia to
Middle East – against a broad range of potential opponents with a diverse range
of capabilities.”


Davis
believes it makes more sense for Australia to team up with other nations rather
than develop these robots on its own. But he sees this “as an important aspect
of future ADF development.”


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