There is a taboo about putting weapons on robots. When Dallas police killed a sniper using an improvised bomb on a robot in 2016, there was a national outcry, and the tactic has not been repeated. The same caution has long applied in the U.S. military, and any suggestion that robots will get weapons still draws a strong reaction. But Special Forces may have quietly broken this longstanding taboo.
Drone strikes against terrorist and insurgent leadership have become routine, although the policy of arming drones seems to have resulted from considerable pressure by the CIA in the face of Air Force resistance. When it comes to putting weapons on unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), the Pentagon has been more cautious.
Back in the 1980s the experimental Teleoperated Mobile Anti-Armor Platform was a 600-pound remote-controlled vehicle. The operator could maneuver it into position and launch missiles at massed Soviet tanks from a safe distance. TMAP worked well in demonstrations up to 1987 but Congress was not impressed – it was deemed too small and underpowered — and TMAP never made it into service.
Many other projects spiraled down the same route. In 2007 the Army finally seemed ready when it deployed three Talon/SWORDS to Iraq. SWORDS was an armed version of a bomb-disposal robot, and had a similar task of being sent in where it was too dangerous for a human. The robots were never used in action though, apparently for political rather than operational reasons, and were withdrawn. There were concerns over how the media would react to ‘killer robots’ and fears what would happen if anything went wrong.
Development has continued since then, with the MAARS robot made by QinetiQ going through seemingly endless evaluations while the military work out tactics, techniques and procedures without ever reaching conclusions. Other U.S. armed robots projects look great on video but similarly remain in development limbo.
Meanwhile the U.S. Army has been deploying remote-controlled weapons by the thousand. The Commonly Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS) in an unmanned turret which enables an operator inside a vehicle to find and engage targets with a machinegun from under armor.
It seems Special Forces had an urgent need for an armed robot and bypassed the existing Army projects. An R&D budget document from the Office of the Secretary of Defense reveals that Special Operation Command developed a Lightweight Remote Weapons System (LRWS), a miniature version of the CROWS turret:
“Description: LRWS rapidly developed and evaluated a remote weapon station with significant size weight and power reduction to enable operations on remotely operated small ground vehicles.” (My emphasis).