Q. Are unmanned ground technologies likely to be game changers?
Although these technologies serve important functions in terms of minimizing exposure to threats that ground troops would otherwise face, there are more natural limitations to the use of these technologies than there are to aerial drones. As the discussion above indicates, the Army itself is ambivalent about next-generation vehicles, having cancelled not just the unmanned Bradley replacement vehicle but also the Future Combat System (FCS), which had planned to integrate unmanned ground systems with aerial drones; together, these two cancellations undermined progress toward ground-based unmanned systems. Indeed, unmanned systems have had nowhere near the operational impact on the ground as they have in the air.
Beyond the fact that developments have lagged behind those in the Air Force, another reason why the technologies have not been transformative is that many appear to be more defense-oriented, unlike aerial drones that have a clear offensive mission of striking targets. Moreover, although particular UGVs are indispensible in terms of IED detonation, many others have operational limitations. For example, the ground is typically densely populated with obstacles that confound the unmanned system's ability to navigate, let alone survive against enemy fire. These vehicles would likely be slow moving, making them vulnerable to attack. Additionally, the more offensively minded they would be, the larger, more lumbering, more visible, and therefore more vulnerable they would be vis-a-vis the adversary. Indoor settings might be less densely populated or vulnerable but because hallways often block radio signals, unmanned vehicles are unable to move easily within walled structures, making employment in particular urban environments difficult. This limitation makes them better suited to ascertain the security of outside spaces, such as a courtyard.
Yet another related limitation is the set of tradeoffs involving sensors, space, and weight such that improvements along one parameter limit the advantages along another. Any useful unmanned ground device would require not only night vision but also infrared for seeing through smoke. These sensors, however, would add weight and necessitate a large battery. The added capabilities carry a tradeoff in terms of making the vehicle more sizeable, limiting its range (portability), again making it more visible.20
Despite having some limitations, UGVs have significantly changed the explosive ordnance disposal missions conducted by national armed forces by limiting risks for one of the most dangerous components of the military. UGVs are particularly well-positioned to have an important impact in certain regions with heavily militarized borders such as the Korean Peninsula, Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East. Israel has been the most successful in making sophisticated UGVs operational in the past decade including unmanned ground combat vehicles, which could impact relations with neighbors and adversaries. For example, the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit during a 2006 cross-border raid would not have occurred if Israel had replaced human troops with UGVs. Beyond this, civilians in Israeli border towns live in fear of Hamas raids and terrorist attacks from underground tunnels during periods of conflict, and UGVs could help enhance security in and around the tunnels. India would be able to take many lessons from Israel's development of UGVs because it too experiences insecurity along the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan in the region of Kashmir, mostly arising from ceasefire violations. With UGVs in place along the border, India could avert these violations, which have become a major source of tension between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. It would also help avoid situations like the one in January 2013, when two Indian soldiers in a border patrol were killed, and one was beheaded, thus leading to a major breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two states, and an escalation of firing along the LoC as well.21 They could also be useful for border patrol and the manning of outposts not just in sensitive areas but also the Siachen glacier, where there are extreme weather conditions.
For countries such as Israel and India, the technologies also offer a more cost-effective way of monitoring their borders. These countries spend considerable amounts of resources protecting their borders, and unmanned systems would aid in identifying potential border incursions without the dull, dirty, and dangerous consequences that can come with the traditional mechanisms of border patrol. Of course, unmanned technologies also lower the cost of taking border patrol missions too far by venturing into another country's territory, analogous to the dynamic involving aerial drones. This possibility could have negative consequences, serving to inflame bilateral relations between neighboring states. Indeed, Israel's reported shoot-down of a Syrian drone that crossed into disputed territory of the Golan Heights intensified already-fraught relations between the two countries. This action contributed to a sense of tit-for-tat retaliation, which had the potential to destabilize the buffer zone of the Golan Heights.22 A similar dynamic could play out with UGVs, with countries taking liberties that they might not if manned alternatives were deployed, causing border transgressions that only serve to intensify rather than defuse tensions.