2015 Could Be a Breakthrough Year for Military Robotics
Policy + Politics

2015 Could Be a Breakthrough Year for Military Robotics

20th Century Fox

Russia stormed into Ukraine, stoking Cold War flames. A little-known group of fighters calling themselves the Islamic State upended the civil war in Syria and re-kindled Iraq, opening wounds in a place where thousands of American troops gave their lives.

The on-paper end to U.S. combat in Afghanistan is still nowhere near reality. And isolated North Korea is at it again, this time threatening cyber war. 

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The year 2014 was one of many challenges and threats across the globe and in Washington, where defense spending remains an annual battleground. Heading into the New Year, there’s no shortage of problems at a time when uncertainty is the norm.

Change at the Top
The Pentagon will get a new leader next year. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will stay on the job until Senate confirmation hearings are held for his successor, former Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

Look for Carter, known best in Washington for his prior jobs in weapons and budgeting, to begin asserting himself on the global stage. Even though Democrats claim Carter as one of their own, he is a strategy disciple of retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor to Republican Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

With the world on fire, Carter will have to find his voice alongside Secretary of State John Kerry, assert his beliefs past National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and find his place with Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama.

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As deputy defense secretary, Carter traveled often to visit deployed troops overseas. Now he must start fresh and earn the trust of troops hungry for leadership after just last month rating Hagel, famously a former sergeant, with a dismal report card.

The Budget Battle Begins In Earnest on Capitol Hill
Budget caps, also known as sequestration, are scheduled kick back in on Oct. 1. DOD’s budget planning has been turned on its head it recent years due to the partisan fight over the size of government spending, with Congress passing defense spending bills several months late and a government shutdown. Defense leaders in both parties have spent much of balance of 2014 voicing opposition to the caps and will do the same in 2015.

“I think the threat of sequestration is maybe counter-intuitively almost as damaging as the reality because of the instability it introduces to the planning process,” Jamie Morin, director of the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, said in early December.

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Lawmakers and defense officials are expected to propose a number of procurement reforms and Pentagon leaders will further detail an innovation initiative designed to spur new development of new technologies to give the military an edge on the battlefield of the future.

Expect DOD to make two major procurement decisions in 2015 that the defense industry is watching closely. The first is the Air Force’s Long Range Strike Bomber and the other the Army’s Joint Light Tactical Vehicle project to replace Humvees. Also, the Marine Corps is expected to declare its version of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter battle ready in 2015.

War and the Campaign Trail
The fight for 2016 also will heat up.

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Republicans have played up a narrative of a feckless administration without a clear foreign policy vision, which contributed to major losses for the president’s party in the November midterm elections and the GOP taking control of the Senate. But it’s unclear what Republicans will offer that’s much different from what the White House is doing; it’s the same unsolved problem that plagued Mitt Romney’s failed bid to become commander-in-chief two years ago.

Already, Obama’s opponents have pledged to try and undo or block executive actions related to national security, from opening an embassy in Havana to emptying the Guantanamo detention center by transferring prisoners one by one to foreign countries. The opposition comes from vocal Republican critics now in greater positions of power on the Hill such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to conservative grass-roots mantle-bearers gearing up for a presidential run in 2016, such as Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Expect battles between the White House and Congress on the strategy against the Islamic State, the reluctance to put American boots on the ground and what to do with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; the timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan; stricter sanctions against Russia and Iran ahead of the next deadline for nuclear talks, extended until June 30; and a push for more lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, Iraqi security forces and Kurds, and Ukrainian government.

Moving Closer to a Robotic Army
2015 could be a breakthrough year for military robotics as a result of years of previous investments and research. This year’s marque event: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, will hold the World Cup of robots, the Robotics Grand Challenge Finals, in Pomona, California on June 5-6.

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In the same way that the 2004 and particularly the 2005DARPA Grand Challenge ushered in the era of the self-driving car, the 2015 Robotics Grand Challenge could herald the dawn of a new day in human-like robotics. DARPAwants the machine for emergency work, (don’t worry, DARPA has been adamant that the military has no plans to arm ground robots,) but the winning system will go on to influence the design of medical, construction, home care, and other personal robots in the coming decade.

But that’s not the only robotic surprise that could spring to life in 2015. An official at the Office of Naval Research, or ONR, told Defense One that the public will be “hearing a lot more” about the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot or SAFFiR. A research program originally launched in 2011, the SAFFiR will be able to withstand temperatures that would wither other robots and will be able to communicate with crew via gestures and voice commands, rapidly create 3D maps of fire damage and will feature what ONR is calling “advanced fire suppression technology suitable for robotic deployment.”

The official said to watch for news and announcements during the Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo, which takes place in Washington during the first week in February.

The U.S. has budgeted $2.4 billion for drones in the current fiscal year, but that could change in light of the rise of the Islamic State. “We thought we could reduce the rate of growth for our [drone] fleet — some — in the years ahead and now we’re really, really looking at that,” Defense Department Undersecretary Michael Vickers told the crowd at the National Security Summit in September. “We’ll probably wind up with a different ISR mix after the budget cycle than we would have a year ago because of the rise ofISIL and other challenges.”

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One drone announcement not likely to garner much media attention, but among the most important, relates to theUCLASS, the Navy’s enormous aircraft carrier-based drone. A request for proposals from the Navy during the summer of 2014 indicated that the military wants a machine capable of 14 hours without refueling. The primary use would be spying. But experts testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in July, reiterated what a number of others have observed about those specifications: namely, that the military should be focusing on a drone with less fuel economy and better weapons payloads. In other words, shorter legs and longer teeth.

The fate of the UCLASS, unlike the drone itself, is up in the air. But clarity could come this year. “The current [National Defense Authorization Act] NDAA restricts [the Department of Defense] DOD from moving to the next phase of development, which would be to award a contract for air vehicle development, until DOD submits a report to Congress explaining how it arrived at the requirements for UCLASS,” Paul Scharre, a fellow and Director of the Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, told Defense One. “In addition, the NDAA requires DOD to submit a broader report on the future of the carrier air wing, explaining how UCLASS fits into the broader picture.”

Compared to a walking fire-fighting robot, the UCLASS is sleeper issue. But it’s one that could influence the future of not only UAVs but the aircraft carrier itself. Speaking at the same House Armed Services Committee hearingShawn Brimley, executive vice president and director of studies at CNAS, said: “This is one of those rare decisions that could have a major impact on how the joint force fights future wars.”

This article originally appeared in Defense One.

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