I've come to believe that remotely operated and autonomous military vehicles
(or RCCVs as Igor Mendelev calls them) will be THE most important military
technology of the first quarter of the 21st century. We're already seeing significant impact from such technology in aerial warfare in the form of cruise missiles and small, inexpensive remotely operated reconnaissance aircraft. Right now remotely operated/semi-autonomous, reusable jet combat vehicles are under development by the U.S. for deployment in the 2005-2010 time period. The U.S. armed services are already working on developing tactics for these machines and the folks involved in that process talk about a real revolution in the effectiveness of air power once these systems are deployed.
Igor's right that the biggest breakthrough will come when this sort of technology begins to be developed for ground combat. However, the problems are very great -- much more so than for aircraft. Igor's proposed design for an RCCV highlights the two key problems: Mobility and supply. The vehicle he describes looks to be about the size of a mid-range automobile with mobility a little greater than a current-generation light SUV.
Imagine the offensive and defensive tactics such a vehicle would call for. Within its range, on roadways or relatively benign off-road terrain and supported by the right kind of air power, groups of such vehicles would represent as much or more of a breakthrough in military technology as the machine gun or tank represented. Deployed against an opponent that did not possess air superiority or significant heavy armor, Igor's RCCV would give its possessor a decisive advantage in a limited tactical range. But consider what it can't do: It can't enter buildings, it would be subject to ambush in close urban quarters and it can't take or control uneven terrain or ground with significant vegetation. Range and resupply considerations aside, in Kosovo, for example, a large number of such vehicles could easily take control of key open roadways and bridges. But facing such a force, Serb forces would just do what Mao did in the face of Japan's superior mechanized military: Cede the roads and control the countryside, fighting an attritional war of ambush and logistical strangulation.
The limitations of a "first-generation RCCV" are even more apparent when one considers logistical factors. How will these vehicles be resupplied with fuel and ammunition? The automatic weapons Igor proposes to arm his RCCV with expend ammunition at a prodigious rate. The amount of ammunition he's talking about would be expended with just a few minutes of sustained fire, at most. RCCV operators would have to be extremely parsimonious with their trigger fingers, something not common among video gamers :-) Yes, they could form an effective firing line on an assault front for very short periods of time, but a savvy enemy would be willing to sustain losses in an initial engagement to cause the RCCV-equipped opponent to use up as much ammunition as possible.
Similar problems develop with fuel. While RCCVs like this might have a decent range in straight-line travel over improved roadways, any sort of rough-terrain travel or combat maneuvering would quickly shorten that range. Again, a smart opponent would employ tactics of movement to force the RCCVs to maneuver as much as possible.
So, how would these vehicles be reloaded and refueled? Would there be remotely operated "tenders" trailing just behind the front line? If so, reliably engaging ammo and fuel ports would require some fairly sophisticated robotics. Furthermore, robotically or remotely operated resupply operations would present an inviting target. If the RCCVs have to travel back to secure human-tended support, the effective combat range of an RCCV would be very short, indeed.
The development front for RCCVs therefore will be mobility and logistical improvements. As for the former, a first-order improvement on the suggested design might involve equipping them with short-range remotely-operated rotorcraft (RORCs) for local reconnaissance and fire-suppression. Imagine a squad of RCCVs coming under fire from anti-tank rocket snipers in a building. The RCCVs launch ten one-meter long helicopter RORCs (with their own separate operators) that swarm the building, entering through windows and doors and suppressing the sniper fire with very small caliber semi-automatic fire, flash grenades, tear-gas and other short-range anti-personnel weapons. The RORCs could be disposable (perhaps used as weapons themselves, or to be recovered manually later) or, with some automated support, might be recoverable by the RCCVs "on the fly", so to speak.
The real RCCV mobility revolution will come when robotics advances to the point where an RCCV can be built with mobility approximating that of a human infantryman. Assuming that the work of folks like Hugo de Garis bears fruit soon, this might well come fairly quickly. I can envision a second-generation RCCV that would be little more than twice the size of a large human, with a six- or eight- legged spider-like mobility platform, upon which a swivelling sensor and weapon turret is mounted. The mobility platform would have its own sensor suite and would be largely autonomous, merely responding to direction and speed inputs from the main human operator. Some form of piezoelectric or other "electro-elastic" musculature would move the mobility legs. Presumably the power source would have to be some kind of very high efficiency fuel cells or perhaps a gas micro-turbine with very highly compressed gas fuel (although the latter would generate a lot of heat, making infrared sensing a problem in both directions). RCCV walkers could be delivered to combat areas by wheeled or rotorcraft ROVs and would supplement first-generation RCCV light armored vehicles in combined-tactics skirmish lines.
Pure fuel and ammunition logistics will continue to be the primary limiting factor for even second-generation RCCVs, but with a semi-robotic "quartermaster corp", field resupply would become much more realistic and effective.
Now, none of this addresses the electronic and information combat that would
increasingly dominate the actual ground battlefield. With second generation
(c. 2010-2020) and then third generation (2020+) RCCVs, control of the
dataflow to and from RCCVs would become decisive. I trust that super-strong encryption could protect the data flow from hacking attack, but EMP weapons might well become extremely important for the defense against RCCVs. One can imagine cryogenically-supported, superconducting capacitor EMP bombs being delivered aerially or with artillery, or even in the form of land mines. Internal automation could be hardened against EMP attack through the use of photonics, but what of radio? Line-of-sight microwave and laser would be very important in such a battlefield, perhaps supported by a LEO direct laser network, supplemented by close-support ROV aerial laser nodes. With sufficient miniaturization and hardening against acceleration damage, perhaps an RCCV force could even be supported by laser-node artillery shells, barraged continually over a battlefront, but we're talking FAST switching and HIGH network architecture flexibility here . . .
Well, that's my three cents on RCCVs . . .
Greg Burch <GBurch1@aol.com>----<firstname.lastname@example.org> Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide http://users.aol.com/gburch1 -or- http://members.aol.com/gburch1 "Civilization is protest against nature; progress requires us to take control of evolution." -- Thomas Huxley