Unmanned military systems – or ‘military robots’ – are becoming more commonplace among the rising number of armies around the world and are used with increasing frequency in combat. Leading powers, their challengers as well as their non-state combat opponents have begun to design, test, and field numerous unmanned systems. The introduction of such technology is reshaping the way wars are fought and will have profound implications on human combatants, military tactics, and state policies for the near future.
The United States and Israel, long leaders in using unmanned systems in their militaries, are now finding themselves in a rapidly evolving technology race with nations that have launched unmanned development programs. Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and a growing number of smaller states are developing various systems in quick succession, aided in no small part by the proliferation of civilian-grade hitech, IT, software, optics, and other know-how technologies across the world. In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the importance of military robots by stating that his country needs its own effective developments ‘of robotized systems for the Russian Armed Forces’.1 This evolution in the use of new technology is upending existing norms and military tactics, generating a lot of questions about the way military competition will unfold in the near future.
For the next several decades, the American military would encounter a number of actors that field unmanned systems in a growing set of missions. The American combat superiority of the past 20 or so years could be slowly eroded by various land, air, and sea-based unmanned systems of near-peer adversaries like Russia and China, as well as by other countries and non-state actors seeking to project their power outside of their immediate spheres of influence. What this uncertain combat future requires is a better understanding among major unmanned systems users how the introduction of this new technology on a mass scale would affect the way they encounter their combat opponents, and how they would try to deconflict their actions – even as they begin to formulate the rules of unmanned engagement for their own forces.