WASHINGTON – As the Pentagon seeks to modernize its weapons program, artificial intelligence and autonomous robots could hold the key to improving the lethality and performance of close combat units.

Front-line infantry service members have long suffered casualties in higher proportion to other positions, with infantry soldiers comprising 90% of U.S. military combat deaths since World War II.

During the Trump administration, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis created the Pentagon’s Close Combat Lethality Task Force to examine capability shortfalls to address what he saw as decades-long gaps in the equipping and training of close-combat units. While leadership of the task force now falls to the Army rather than the secretary of defense, the initiative continues to look at shortfalls across multiple services’ small units.

With AI the name of the game in the Pentagon’s modernization efforts, the four-year old task force is turning to academia and industry leaders to regain a competitive edge in close combat and examine how autonomous technology can be leveraged to address small units’ priorities.

“We are transforming the joint force by integrating next-generation technologies and war-fighting concepts,” said Col. Shannon Nielsen, the task force director, in a statement. “[This] enhances our ability to compete globally, deter adversaries, and win on all-domain battlefields at the small-unit level.”

The mission of the task force is twofold: to increase the “lethality” of close combat soldiers while decreasing causalities of U.S. infantry members.

Part of the initiative focused on identifying and developing options for investment that include “more lethal and discriminating individual weapons systems, while recognizing the imperative to lighten load for infantry squads,” according to a memo put out by Mattis.

In 2020, Mattis’ successor Mark Esper directed the Army to take control of the task force, citing the branch’s large share of infantry and special operators. The task force moved its headquarters to Fort Benning in Georgia.

“We’ve gotten smaller and leaner since we arrived in Fort Benning,” said Ed Agee, a principal program analyst with the task force, in an interview with C4ISRNET.

The force, which still includes members coming from multiple services, is now looking toward AI and robots as the next step in filling infantry squads’ capability gaps. At the end of July, the force hosted the first meeting of the Artificial Intelligence for Small Unit Maneuver working group at Fort Benning.

Building on the task force’s mission of improving lethality for small units, the group is particularly interested in providing autonomous and AI technology to close combat troops in the Army, Marines and Special Forces.

Participants at the event witnessed technologies that might eventually be used on the battlefield, such as a four-legged robot, or “dog,” and small unmanned aerial vehicles. The event was part of the Army’s “10x platoon” experiment, which tries out technologies to upgrade infantry forces for the decade ahead.

“We’re pushing the edge of the envelope – thinking outside the box,” Agee said.

Although the robots and autonomous technologies tested at the event were not armed, Agee said he could see the beginnings of the transition to armed capabilities based on the remote technologies witnessed at the event.

Different technologies could find homes in different services depending on the capability gaps each service has within its small units.

The Army, for example, views the “dog,” as a top priority, Agee said. The four-legged robot could be used to scout a building or location that might come under fire, taking the place of a soldier. Meanwhile, Special Forces prioritizes technologies that allow the command’s platforms to operate in denied airspace where communication or other network technologies might be blocked, he explained.

The working group included operational end-users who have participated in combat. At the event, they had the opportunity to provide feedback to engineers and other industry personnel and academics in attendance about the technologies tested and what improvements or changes they would like to see made based.

By Aug. 31, defense leaders from the services will provide the task force with a list of capability gaps for the Army, Marines and Special Operations. From there, he said the task force will turn to industry leaders and academics to brainstorm ideas about what AI technologies could assist in meeting those needs.

“If a technology shows great promise, and it’s successful with development and the decision is made to make it a program of record, it would go through...an accelerated version of acquisition,” Agee said.

He explained that the decision to accelerate an acquisition timeline depends on the promise of the technology and what shortfall the technology is addressing.

The working group, including the task force, meets monthly with members of the joint AI community.

Catherine Buchaniec is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where she covers artificial intelligence, cyber warfare and uncrewed technologies.

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