MILITARY

Why You Should Fear Russia’s Robot Army

Because it contributes to killer robot proliferation

MILITARY
Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jun 01, 2016 at 11:53 AM ET

For months, Russia has been revealing a stable of autonomous weapons—drones, remote controlled tanks, and killer robots—but none have quite captured the world’s attention like their latest poster bot—a humanoid machine that Moscow claims will replace mortal soldiers.

You shouldn’t worry about the device that Russia is calling “Iron Man” and “Ivan the Terminator”—the federation’s military robotics programs is years and billions of dollars behind the United States. Iron Man doesn’t stand a chance against DARPA’s finest, but there is still reason to fear Russia’s future robot mercenaries.

Russia’s proto-robo-solider has only been shown in driving simulation with the aid of a remote control suit, but it could someday march into risky areas threatened by explosives, fire, and radiation, according to the Russian paper Komsomolskaya Pravda. The rest of Russia’s robotic lineup is much more useful and much less like Isaac Asimov characters. For instance, the Uran-6 is a remote controlled land mine detonator and the Uran-14 is a tank that puts out fires with a scorpion-tail-like water blaster.

Russia is also working on robots that kill, like Uran-9, which fires 400 rounds per minute as well as guided missiles and Platform-M, which rolls around next to soldiers, firing ammunition like a souped-up R2-D2.

With these new developments, Russia joins the United States and China in the club of world superpowers trying to build autonomous soldiers. But does that mean we’re in the throes of a robotic arms race? Not according to Peter W. Singer, an expert on emerging military technology and senior fellow at New America think tank. Singer says robotic weaponry is already far too ubiquitous for the tech to be at the heart of a battle for military supremacy.

“This is not just a story of Russia. The players who build robotics range from U.S. defense contractors to Chinese defense companies to Russian ones. But also, Silicon Valley,” Singer said. “There are nations and companies around the world all building this technology, all trying to get ahead… What we’re seeing is the normalization of this. Just as Russia, the U.S., and China all competed to build and sell jet fighters and tanks, robotics is becoming like that.”

In fact, dozens of countries already use military robotics. If you want to see for yourself just how popular automated weapons are, go to a defense exposition. “The interesting shift to me is at these military trade shows where companies show off their wares,” Singer said. “It used to be abnormal to see drones. Now it’s utterly normal and the same thing is happening to ground robotics.”

But what makes Moscow’s investment into this field potentially alarming for the U.S. is that their weapons could soon end up in the hands of America’s enemies. “It’s an entrant into the global marketplace and one that historically has been willing to sell to nations that U.S. would prefer doesn’t get certain technologies.”

These particular technologies pose a unique threat because they complicate the laws of war—which is one of the main reasons that the United Nations is considering banning autonomous weapons. “There’s a bigger worry with the legal and ethical challenges that merge when you have more and more autonomous systems, thinking how they might be used and abused,” Singer said, explaining that, just as drones protect pilots, robot soldiers protect real soldiers from being captured, which allows military powers both to protect human soldiers and to use robots in operations that they can keep secret or later deny. “To give a parallel, Russia recently did a trade of POWs with Ukraine. Russia had been saying, ‘We don’t have troops in Ukraine.’ But then they did a swap. That’s one of the appeals of unmanned systems. It’s why the U.S. uses drones over Pakistan.”

Perhaps Russia is just readying for the machine-covered battlefield of tomorrow—or maybe Vladimir Putin wants to have the same technology-enabled deniability that the U.S. has had for more than a decade.

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