Conflict and Leadership
Robots in Action: How a Pandemic Affects the Future Face of the Armed Forces

Over the past decade, the world has seen rapid development and introduction of unmanned military systems into practically all forms of conflict and security/law enforcement.

What began as a near-monopoly on such system by a handful of states has now grown into an evolving matrix of national defense establishments, regular armies, security services, law enforcement agencies, as well as all forms of non-state belligerents using such technology in one way or another. Before the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, many governments and military planning offices, as well as the defense-industrial establishments that support them, were making plans to design, test and field air, land and sea-based unmanned technology for defense, intelligence, surveillance and offensive operations. Of special note is the definition of such technology - at this point in time, “unmanned” refers more to “remote-piloted”, since a human operator is very much in control of such systems.  While there are hints and indications of greater autonomy in such unmanned weapons, the human role is not expected to diminish anytime soon when it comes to the maintenance and operation of “military robotics.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affected global population in the most profound ways, especially their relationship to technology.  While some technology was no longer viewed as pivotal to daily operation, other types have vaulted to global prominence. Remote teleconferencing became the new norm, affecting practically every society and every kind of job. In a way, a teleconference serves as a way for participants to gather information directly related to their employment, and to coordinate action among different groups and units in an organization. This is precisely one of the main reasons that armed forces today deploy unmanned systems, especially the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). 

Another reason for the use of such remotely-piloted/unmanned systems is that they can go where regular troops often can’t, and are often used to safeguard soldiers’ lives in combat. Many unmanned systems currently in use are cheap mission multipliers - offering capabilities at a small fraction of the cost of using manned assets like aircraft and helicopters, for example. With COVID-19 restrictions in place to safeguard human lives, using “substitute” technologies has never been more important. For the military, it means furthering the goals of applying this new technology in place of human assets. 


More to the point, as the Russian military establishment confirmed for itself in Syria, such systems are key in current and future combat, and military action without them is "unthinkable."  Over the years, many military forces have honed the use of such technology for better situational awareness, as their command structures drive the need for precise, actionable and real-time information. The use of such unmanned systems is increasing the precision and lethality of military units, a global trend that is accelerating the development and introduction of such systems at the tactical and operational levels. With respect to Russia and other countries, while the pandemic may have forced certain limitations on the concepts of operations (CONOPS), and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), the spread of COVID-19 had a limited effect on how armed forces train and fight. This means that pre-coronavirus actions and plans for the development, testing and fielding of unmanned military systems are still very much in effect. For example, there have been no announcements that defense procurements would be drastically curtailed in the wake of COVID-19.

At this point in time, most countries and defense industries that manufacture unmanned military systems are still on track to deliver them to their respective militaries. For example, in April 2020, US military was testing out a new tactical UAV that would replace an older, mass-produced drone. On May 8, in the midst of global pandemic quarantines, Russian defense-industrial establishment tested a breakthrough deep-water unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), with possible transfer of this vehicle to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Another example of “business as usual” is Russia’s Rostec Corporation’s deal to manufacture tilt-rotor UAVs for the Artic. In other worlds, the industry pace is staying on course.

Should there be another COVID-like wave that could potentially limit the movement and deployment of military forces, the need for the "eyes, ears and sensors" would be even more acute. Since the military unmanned systems are becoming a key part of the C4ISR structures (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), a force that could be limited in basic operations would rely on technology that could overcome such a limitation. This is where numerous unmanned systems are most useful. In armed forces with more advanced unmanned weapons development, that means greater pace of utilization of this capability for operating well beyond the horizon - from a few to a few hundred miles. Should human aircraft pilots, artillery complements or naval units be grounded due to health concerns, the unmanned systems could potentially step in their place to deliver key information or strike the adversary, while allowing the operators to work from remote and safe locations.

Moreover, today’s military sometimes borrows from the civilian technologies and lessons learned in order to hone its own operations and TTPS. As the COVID-19 spread around the world, the frequency of discussions about using unmanned systems in place of humans in different industries has accelerated. For example, aerial drones and unmanned ground vehicles were used to monitor populations, deliver products and disinfect physical objects. For the law enforcement, security and interior ministry-type organizations, the UAVs in particular offered a cheap and capable solution for population oversight. Many nations may choose to incorporate the use of such unmanned systems in their daily CONOPS, as the threat of repeat pandemics is discussed. For the military, using unmanned systems for logistics and support was already a rapidly growing development area even before COVID-19 hit. There is no indication today that the development, testing and use of such technology would slow down in a post-COVID world, since the use of robotics safeguards human lives on the battlefield, and frees up human assets for other missions.

For the United States, one of the main leaders in unmanned military technology research, development, testing and evaluation, post-COVID budgetary pressures may require the government “to identify cost-informed means to conduct its national security activities more affordably, as the severity of the crisis required the government to spend trillions to mitigate its financial impact and protect the economy.” For Washington, engaging in the global competition during the pandemic requires “maintaining deterrence that may be achieved more economically through indirect and asymmetric military means.” Such requirements are not unique to the US alone, and invoke the need for cheaper technological solutions that can achieve potentially the same results as using more expensive alternate platforms. As an example, today’s combat UAVs are slowly closing the capability gaps with manned aircraft, and are utilized across the world in place of, or as complementary units to manned aviation.

Today’s unmanned/remotely controlled military systems are slowly maturing into more sophisticated designs that are starting to perform more independent tasks, in non-military and actual combat environments. The ongoing and future pandemics are unlikely to reverse this trend. Most importantly, conflict around the world - intra-state, cross-border, and even potentially inter-state - is unlikely to stop even in the midst of a severe pandemic.  These conflicts are not hitting a “pause“ button due to medical reasons, which in turn assures the constant need for new and improved weapons that can augment existing human capabilities. This is where military robotics come in, as more and more nations and their armed forces build on current experience with using and building machines to further their goals.
After the Pandemic the World Will Never Be the Same Again
Djoomart Otorbaev
The current epidemiological shock and probably subsequent upheavals will have long-term consequences for the planet. The coronavirus pandemic is compelling humanity to fight a common enemy. Communities that have survived wars are becoming more united. Now people have fully realised that only consolidation and collective efforts can bring success in this war, writes Djoomart Otorbaev, Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic in 2014–2015
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