Robots at War: The New Battlefield

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

January 23, 2009

There was little to warn of the danger ahead. The Iraqi insurgent had laid his ambush with great cunning. Hidden along the side of the road, the bomb looked like any other piece of trash. American soldiers call these ­jury-­rigged bombs IEDs, official shorthand for improvised explosive devices.

The unit hunting for the bomb was an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team, the sharp end of the spear in the effort to suppress roadside bombings. By 2006, about 2,500 of these attacks were occurring a month, and they were the leading cause of casualties among U.S. troops as well as Iraqi civilians. In a typical tour in Iraq, each EOD team would go on more than 600 calls, defusing or safely exploding about two devices a day. Perhaps the most telling sign of how critical the teams’ work was to the American war effort is that insurgents began offering a rumored $50,000 bounty for killing an EOD ­soldier.

Unfortunately, this particular IED call would not end well. By the time the soldier was close enough to see the telltale wires protruding from the bomb, it was too late. There was no time to defuse the bomb or to escape. The IED erupted in a wave of ­flame.

Depending on how much explosive has been packed into an IED, a soldier must be as far as 50 yards away to escape death and as far as a half-mile away to escape injury from bomb fragments. Even if a person is not hit, the pressure from the blast by itself can break bones. This soldier, though, had been right on top of the bomb. As the flames and debris cleared, the rest of the team advanced. They found little left of their teammate. Hearts in their throats, they loaded the remains onto a helicopter, which took them back to the team’s base camp near Baghdad International Airport.

That night, the team’s commander, a Navy chief petty officer, did his sad duty and wrote home about the incident. The effect of this explosion had been particularly tough on his unit. They had lost their most fearless and technically savvy soldier. More important, they had lost a valued member of the team, a soldier who had saved the others’ lives many times over. The soldier had always taken the most dangerous roles, willing to go first to scout for IEDs and ambushes. Yet the other soldiers in the unit had never once heard a complaint.

In his condolences, the chief noted the soldier’s bravery and sacrifice. He apologized for his inability to change what had happened. But he also expressed his thanks and talked up the silver lining he took away from the loss. At least, he wrote, “when a robot dies, you don’t have to write a letter to its mother.”

The “soldier” in this case was a 42-pound robot called a PackBot. About the size of a lawn mower, the PackBot mounts all sorts of cameras and sensors, as well as a nimble arm with four joints. It moves using four “flippers.” These are tiny treads that can also rotate on an axis, allowing the robot not only to roll forward and backward using the treads as a tank would, but also to flip its tracks up and down (almost like a seal moving) to climb stairs, rumble over rocks, squeeze down twisting tunnels, and even swim underwater. The cost to the United States of this “death” was $150,­000.

Read the full article at The Wilson Quarterly »

Learn more about Singer’s book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century »