US Army could create up to 16 new drone and robotics combat teams


As reported by Defense One on March 27, 2024, Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, leader of the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team within the US Army, announced the submission of a proposal to create up to 16 drone and robotics units, designated as Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) platoons, to the Combined Arms Center, which is responsible for the US Army's adaptation to meet future threats.
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US Army's Project Convergence Capstone 4 exercise, held in March 2024, showcased the integration of several autonomous platforms within combat units. (Picture source: US DoD)


This proposition is currently under review by the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth and is intended for inclusion in the Army’s forthcoming force design update. The determination of the optimal number of RAS platoons per armored brigade combat team is currently in an experimental phase. Should the proposal be approved for implementation across the US Army, it would mark an increase in the employment of robotic systems, particularly ground robots, within the Army’s structure.

Currently, the US Army has 11 active armored brigade combat teams and an additional five in the National Guard. Consequently, the introduction of RAS platoons could initially result in at least 16 new units, with the possibility of further expansion should the concept be applied to other types of brigade combat teams, such as infantry and Stryker brigades.

Robotic and autonomous systems (RAS), also referred to as Robotic Combat Vehicles (RCVs), are envisioned to perform a variety of tasks in US Army formations, including reconnaissance, surveillance, and direct engagement with adversaries. The continuous development of robotic prototypes by several defense contractors, such as the WOLF-X and TRX, points to a future where US soldiers may control multiple platforms or work collaboratively with autonomous systems, depending on mission requirements.

The exploration and development of ground robots, including those resembling quadruped robots or "robot dogs," have faced technological challenges, notably in their ability to sense obstacles and communicate effectively. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of drones and robotic platforms in Ukraine has been observed, providing capabilities ranging from improving battlespace awareness to delivering precision strikes against heavy targets, even under conditions where air superiority is contested. For instance, drones costing a few hundred dollars have been used to deliver long-range strikes capable of destroying more expensive traditional assets, sometimes worth millions of dollars.

The successful tactical use of drones by Ukraine has sparked interest from other nations in adopting similar strategies. Currently, there are two operational RAS platoons within the US Army: one in the 82nd Airborne and another experimental unit within the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence. These units have demonstrated their capabilities, employing a range of drones, including Ghost-X drones and the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET), which can be armed with a Javelin anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). The adaptability of these units, through the ability to interchange components based on mission needs, is a noted characteristic.

Key to the integration of these systems is the concept of human-machine collaboration, which aims to effectively merge robotic capabilities with human oversight. The Army is exploring different models of interaction between soldiers and autonomous systems, focusing on how best to incorporate these technologies into operational formations, as challenges remain. As highlighted by Maj. Gen. Glenn Dean, program executive officer for ground combat systems, controlling robotic vehicles at speeds exceeding 25 miles per hour is still difficult due to limitations in network and spectrum capacity.

This limitation impacts the real-time transmission of visual data, essential for operational effectiveness. The use of autonomous vehicles aims to free soldiers from routine and high-risk tasks. By allowing soldiers to focus on more important tasks, the increased use of these platforms will also improve protection for soldiers, decrease the need for manpower, and enhance mobility through the application of new technologies.