Robots won't replace human soldiers on the battlefield.
Still, the question of robot warriors bears increasing consideration in light of Defense One's interesting piece out Friday on the U.S. Army's first live-fire exercise involving ground robots.
But while the exercises do speak to the future of warfare, of drones and robots of all shapes and sizes taking to the battlefield, the future of warfare won't be robot-exclusive.
On paper, it's easy to understand why the prospect of robotic warfighters is so appealing. Most obviously, robots are not sentient life forms (yet), so the moral costs of war could be reduced by their presence in lieu of human warriors. In addition, a robot's ability to fuse itself into a broader intelligence and combat network gives it the ability to fight more responsively and effectively. This would help cut out or cut through what's referred to as the fog of war.
Imagine, for example, if one robot detects hidden enemy units 10 miles away from another allied robot. Where humans would take time to relay that information and respond accordingly, the first robot's detection would immediately flow to the second robot.
Still, human soldiers can do things that robots cannot. For one, they have the ability to respond to a situation with nuance. They can, for example, read the body language of a civilian who might be a terrorist. They can adapt to cultural idiosyncrasies. And most importantly, they can earn the personal trust of those they are interacting with. This is especially crucial in insurgency environments, where the ability to earn the trust of others is even more important than the ability to locate and destroy an enemy.
In addition, unlike human soldiers, robots could be hacked and turned against their own side. Again, the fused network in which robots would operate also leaves them vulnerable to a few lines of code turning them into enemies rather than allies. In contrast, even if one or a small group of soldiers betrayed their companions, the force as a whole would be highly unlikely to do so: Their moral sentience and patriotism mean they can be relied on to follow orders.
Of course, the ability of robots to take more fire and not leave behind families is of great potential, and the military is rightly pushing ahead with exercises such as this one. Ultimately, though, while robots will play a significant role in future wars, they will only do so alongside human personnel.