YAKIMA TRAINING CENTER, Wash. — The U.S. Army has concluded an elaborate exercise at Yakima Air Base in Washington state to identify the ability for robots to take on dangerous and dirty work in battle.

Gen. Mike Murray, the head of Army Futures Command, landed via UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter on a high desert plateau at Yakima Training Center on May 7, with a University of Texas engineer in tow who specializes in robotics. They made the trip to check out progress made by the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Stryker Brigade Combat Team, led by Lt. Col. Jonathan Fursman, in assessing robotic breach capabilities as part of Bayonet Focus and the Joint Warfighting Assessment 2019.

JWA is an annual exercise meant for experimentation of new and emerging concepts and capabilities. Previous iterations were held at Fort Bliss, Texas, and in Germany. This year it is stateside, but the plan is to return to Europe in 2020.

“We never, ever want to send another soldier into a breach, so how do we do this completely autonomously?” Murray asked, adding that this is the problem set he’s presented to engineers and the Army.

Murray’s command is less than a year old, but it hit the ground running to carry out it’s mission to rapidly modernize the Army with a focus on six priorities: long-range precision fires, the next-generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift, the network, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality.

Within the NGCV portfolio, the Army will evaluate and prototype robotic combat vehicles. However, the technology isn’t the challenge, according to Murray, but rather figuring out the utility of robots and how they can best be used on the battlefield, which means understanding shortcomings and advantages of the technology.

“It’s not necessarily the hardware, it’s about the employment of robotics and the human-robotics interfaces that we have to look at,” Murray told Defense News, who accompanied him on the trip.

The Army continues to introduce complexity to its breach exercises, adding more layers to this year’s evaluation, to include flying a Black Hawk that spits out two unmanned aircraft systems — called Air-Launched Effects — thousands of feet above enemy terrain to perform surveillance and reconnaissance. That capability is in its infancy but is part of the future vertical lift modernization effort underway.

“The robotics piece of this is not the hard part,” Murray said. “The hard part is figuring out where it makes sense, how they interact, how they adapt, how soldiers do certain things now that they have robotic capability.

“There are a lot of things we have to work through.”

What happened at the exercise?

Fursman and Capt. Nichole Rotte, commander of Bravo Company, 23rd Brigade Engineer Battalion, were tasked to design the breach obstacles and how robots might overcome them, while also challenging those robots in a complex and realistic scenario.

Bravo Company took on the challenge of figuring how robots can breach obstacles like mine fields, concertina wire and anti-tank trenches while under fire to clear the way for an assault into enemy territory.

The Army has come a long way in this area in just the past few years. In 2017, at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Maneuver Center of Excellence held a demonstration of robotic combat vehicle capability, showcasing its efforts to develop a robotic wingman within the maneuver force and how to incorporate robotic capability within a tank formation, but the demonstration lacked a complex operational scenario and difficult obstacles for the robots to overcome.

The breach exercise at Yakima challenged a wide array of robots with an obstacle layered with mine fields, wire and a deep trench.

In addition to surveillance from the Air-Launched Effects, the Alabama National Guard launched from a reconnaissance vehicle a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protective-measure quadcopter to assess any chemical agents present in the area. And a Puma UAS scouted obstacles ahead of advancing robotic vehicles.

A CBRN reconnaissance vehicle and quadcopter used in the Army's combined arms breach exercise at Yakima Training Center on May 7. (Jen Judson/Staff)
A CBRN reconnaissance vehicle and quadcopter used in the Army's combined arms breach exercise at Yakima Training Center on May 7. (Jen Judson/Staff)

And the unit deployed a smoke screen using a robotic Polaris MRZR vehicle that could maintain a thick and steady plume for roughly 30 minutes.

To conduct the breach, Rotte’s unit used two surrogate NGCVs to secure the area and provide suppression fire — a Humvee and an M113 armored personnel carrier, both equipped with a 7.62mm machine gun. The Humvee was controlled by another Humvee, and the M113 was controlled by an operator in a Stryker vehicle. Both controllers maintained a line of sight, positioned low, beneath the plateau.

With the enemy suppressed, two robotic assault breacher vehicles, or ABV, controlled by a Marine Corps unit began to tackle the obstacles. Both robotic vehicles were controlled from a single command vehicle.

The first ABV employed a mine-clearing line charge, clearing a path for the second ABV, inserting stakes in the ground as it moved forward to mark where it was safe for the second ABV to drive in and use a blade used to fill a tank trench.

Once the ABV filled in the ditch, it paved the way for an assault force to move in on the enemy location.

Two assault breacher vehicles were used in the demonstration. One cleared mines, creating a path for the second ABV with the capability to fill in tank trenches. (Jen Judson/Staff)
Two assault breacher vehicles were used in the demonstration. One cleared mines, creating a path for the second ABV with the capability to fill in tank trenches. (Jen Judson/Staff)

The first breach exercise took two and a half hours, according to Rotte, but the second time around, operators shaved off 30 minutes and proved that robots can accomplish the same breach in roughly the same amount of time as a manned operation would.

Sticking out like a sore thumb

A significant challenge is the electronic signature given off by a group of robots on a battlefield, and so the Army assessed the implications of that during the exercise.

“I worry about the links in terms of it being secure,” Murray said. There are lots of things we gotta work through.”

Fursman said a lot of thinking went into how to obscure the robotic activity, which was largely achieved through a physical smoke screen, but also electronically.

“This is a robotic breach, so you are going to have electronic signatures, so jamming is a threat, for example,” Fursman said.

The exercise included mounted and dismounted electronic warfare capabilities to detect enemy locations and to deploy anti-tank rounds — single multipurpose attack munitions, also known as kamikaze drones. The capabilities were also used to jam enemy frequencies.

But even with those capabilities, the noisy signatures of robots and the capability of an enemy to jam them is a cause for concern, Fursman noted. So the unit tried to deceive enemy forces by emitting a larger signature on the far side of the plateau to make it look like the Army was massing in another location through a lot of radio traffic and other signatures, Fursman said.

This would work if the enemy could solely see the force through electronic means, Fursman said: “They’d see a much bigger signature over here, while we were tucked in behind terrain here waiting to begin the operation.”

But once the enemy has eyes on the robots conducting the breach, “the last thing I’m worried about is electronic signature,” Murray added.

What if an 80-ton robot dies in a ditch?

A less-than-ideal scenario for the Army would be for an 80-ton robot filling in a trench to die while it’s still breaching the obstacle. “Can you just bring in another one?” Murray said, mulling over the scenario. “You can’t. You only have one lane, you are not going to push it out of the way, so you are starting a new breach lane if that happens.”

Rotte said she and her unit are thinking about solutions. “How do I push it through the breach? How do I recover it? What’s the next step?” she said.

“We have come up with a couple of TTPs if we lose the robotics or if something happens,” like bringing in operators via Stryker vehicles to manually move the trucks through a breach, Rotte added. “But are there other options?”

One idea, she said, might be to send in more expendable vehicles that are easier to push out of the way and leave on the battlefield.

Murray brainstormed the use of smaller vehicles to perform certain tasks like detonating mines, or perhaps using M113 M113 armored personnel carriers. “We’ve got thousands and thousands of 113s that we could make robotic and that are completely expendable,” he said. “The more you can get to expendable assets to do this, the better off you are going to be.”

The robotic breach also triggers the debate over what the Army should procure and how those capabilities should be deployed: Should the Army send in high-tech, expensive and heavily armored optionally manned vehicles to conduct operations like breaches? Or can the service design robotic vehicles “that are a little bit more skeleton with all the breaching equipment so if it doesn’t make it, it doesn’t make it, and you just buy more for the redundancy factor?” Rotte wondered.

How much autonomy is ideal?

For most of the soldiers operating the robots, training began three weeks prior. Most operators said they were proficient in less than a few days. For simplicity purposes, the Army designed the control systems for the robots with Xbox controllers, with which a number of soldiers were already familiar.

Operators did observe latency when it came to the sensor and video feeds from cameras on the robots, but it was barely an issue. And the robots were not particularly difficult to maneuver, according to the operators.

However, Rotte’s team considered the level of autonomy that might be appropriate to remove some of the burden of manned crews. But for the purpose of the breach exercise, operators remained in the loop.

The Army will continue to add complexity in robotic operational exercises, according to Murray, as it figures out how to adopt capability into a modernized force, either through applications in the current fleet or in future vehicles.