PARIS — The French army is looking for new robots to provide increased mass and endurance on the future battlefield, but is still working out the details of what kinds of robots will fit the bill.
Last year, the army launched a new study dubbed “Vulcain” with the goal of establishing firm requirements for a new tactical robot to be fielded by 2040, service officials said this week at the biennial Eurosatory defense conference outside Paris.
The study should be completed by the end of 2022, said Lt. Col. David Schuster, robotic development leader in the Army’s plans office, at a Tuesday briefing here. For now, the requirements are somewhat of a blank slate, save for two key areas.
“Mass and endurance are particularly important” factors for a future robotic capability, he said.
“The French army has worked a lot on agility, but little by little, it has lost its mass,” he added. “Are robots a way to rebuild our mass?”
A soldier can get fatigued during long sessions of reconnaissance and surveillance, he continued. “Can the endurance of a robotic system compensate for this issue?”
For now, both unmanned aerial systems and ground robots are under consideration for surveillance missions, Schuster said. “I don’t presuppose what kind of platform will do that, whether it’s a drone or if it’s a ground robot.”
He emphasized that France has no intention of procuring fully autonomous lethal systems, but is interested in “semi-autonomous lethal weapons,” where there is always a human decision maker in the loop.
The Vulcain study is intended as a bridge between the army’s two behemoth modernization programs, Schuster said. The ongoing Scorpion program aims to replace the service’s light- and medium-weight tactical vehicles and implement a new unified combat information system and UHF radios through 2030, while the future Titan program will focus on replacing heavy-lift vehicles — weighing more than 25 tons — along with artillery and combat helicopters through 2045.
There will be some “coherence” with the army’s other future capabilities, such as the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), a new battle tank co-developed by KNDS — a joint venture between France’s Nexter Defense Systems and Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann — and scheduled to be operational by 2040, Schuster noted.
There have been no “formal links” with industry on Vulcain to date, Col. Arnaud Goujon, chief of plans at the French army headquarters, told reporters at the conference Monday.
But the goal is to move quickly and field initial robot units by 2025, so the pressure is on to finalize requirements by the end of the year, he noted.
Schuster said the service wants to get out of the habit of asking industry what capabilities can be developed, and industry asking what capabilities the service is actually looking for. “This vicious cycle can go on for a long time,” he noted.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.