22 September 2013

Start-Stop DoD Ground Vehicle Programs Hurting Progress

Mark II Talon via Wikipedia Commons and US Navy
The U.S. Army is the world's most obvious customer for unmanned ground vehicles, but, as the New York Times reports, the Department of Defense may soon lag behind consumer offerings from Nissan, GM and Google . As the Times wrote,
The armed forces have lagged on deploying their own versions of unmanned road vehicles, despite goals to create new machines that could be used in place of 'boots on the ground.'
Not so long ago, the Army Future Combat Systems program was to have transformed the Army into an agile force that featured integrated network  the network of ground sensors, UAVs, unmanned ground vehicles as well as conventional manned ground vehicles. FCS was killed in 2009 in favor of a smaller, more focused effort.

Longtime civilian analysts within the Department and its contractor ecosystem will not be surprised by this conclusion. More than ten years ago, a 2002 National Research Council report put it this way:
"The urgent need to transform the Army—from one characterized by heavy armor and firepower into a lighter, more responsive Objective Force that is at once both lethal and survivable—has made development of practical unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) systems a necessity for the future. Concepts for the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS), which are now being evaluated, include unmanned systems, both ground and air, and thus will be required for fielding with other elements of the FCS as early as 2010. The Army plans to use UGVs for such things as weapons platforms, logistics carriers, and surrogates for reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA), both to increase combat effectiveness and to reduce the number of soldiers placed in harm’s way. Congress, too, has recognized the potential of unmanned systems and has mandated that at least one of every three future Army systems be unmanned."
Needless to say, that goal is nowhere close to being achieved. More than a decade later, the results have been slow to play out on the battlefield's ground war -- in the case of Afghanistan, a battlefield ripe for unmanned innovation with U.S. casualties due to IED's. 

Despite progress with systems like the iRobot Warrior, Talon and Packbot, the Times story anticipates diffusion from civilian to military applications. Even at reduced Research and Development funding levels, U.S. taxpayers have a right to expect the reverse.

For a glimpse at the current DoD thinking and planning, read the 2012 Robotic Systems Joint Project Office Unmanned Ground Systems Roadmap.

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