Thursday, January 9, 2020

Singapore Army, DSTA and ST Engineering gain valuable experience testing big & small UGVs

Trials of an armed Milrem Robotics THeMIS unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) in Singapore suggest that the Singapore Army is considering a hi-low mix of big and small combat robots of various sizes and capabilities.

Testing UGVs that differ markedly in size, weight, armament options and computing power will give Singapore's land forces and its defence engineers a firsthand look at the spectrum of capabilities and limitations of big and small unmanned platforms. Such field trials and battle experiments are invaluable. The trials reward operators from the Singapore Army and engineers from the technical evaluation teams - the ops-tech interface - with experience operating UGVs in Singapore's climate and operational conditions.

With such experience, the Singapore Army can work with engineers from the Defence Science & Technology Agency and homegrown defence company, Singapore Technologies Engineering, to jointly conceptualise UGV force structures with big and small platforms, the so-called hi-low mix. The teams can also think about how combat robots can be integrated with manned units.

Hi-end: The unmanned Hunter unmanned ground vehicle is the largest and most heavily armed combat robot the Singapore Army is known to have tested.

At the high end lies the Hunter UGV (above), designed and made in Singapore. This tracked vehicle,  which is based on the Hunter armoured fighting vehicle, was developed as a private venture by ST Engg. The vehicle made its public debut in July 2019 when Singapore's Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, toured the company's Land Systems arm. At 29.5 tonnes in weight and 6.9m in length, the 3.4m tall and 3.4m wide UGV is the largest, most heavily armoured and most powerfully-armed combat robot the Singapore Army is known to have tested.

The tracked THeMIS from Estonia is at the low end of the size spectrum. Its name means Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System (maybe the "e" can mean electronically-controlled?). This fully-tracked, wirelessly controlled UGV is designed for use as a transportation system or remote weapon platform, and more. Measuring 240cm by 200cm and weighing 1.6 tonnes, THeMIS is about as small as you can make a combat robot while giving it a useful speed (25km/h) and payload (750kg).

Low-end: An Estonian-built Milrem Robotics THeMIS combat robot undergoing trials in Singapore. Note the size of the THeMIS compared to the operator and the Singapore-made 8x8 Terrex in the background. 

The remote-controlled CIS 50 12.7mm heavy machine gun seen on the THeMIS as it trundled around ST Engg's test track gives the UGV a useful capability against infantry and light vehicles. Use of 12.7mm saboted light armour penetrator (SLAP) rounds give it the ability to punch through light armoured vehicles with around 10mm armour plate. And if the remote controlled weapon station (RCWS) can accommodate a Singapore-made heavy machine gun, it is likely the same RCWS can take a belt-fed CIS 40 40mm automatic grenade launcher as alternative armament.

Despite the armament options and the ability to engage the enemy from afar remotely, individual UGVs - big and small - are not invulnerable.

Both types of UGVs can be defeated by infantry anti-tank teams with the agility and battle sense to move faster than the UGV sensors/weapons can slew.

As the field of view of UGV sensors is narrow, commanders of AT teams can exploit their knowledge of terrain to stalk UGVs to bring them within range of light anti-tank weapons. Even near misses by low velocity 40mm grenades can cause a mission kill if the 40mm projectiles succeed in disrupting, degrading or destroying the sensors and electro optics on combat robots.

Unmanned vs Autonomous 
As progress is made in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), one should expect combat robots to operate more autonomously. In time to come, UGVs would go into action programmed with AI algorithms that enable the combat robots to navigate and survive in contested environments.

We are possibly less than 10 years away from seeing a smart AI-enabled UGV that is able to conduct fully autonomous combat operations, perhaps supported by resupply robots that can rearm and recharge/refuel the UGVs to sustain the tempo of land warfare operations round-the-clock (or as long as the resupply bots do their job).

At the rate at which AI is evolving, one must recognise that the major limitation to fielding autonomous UGVs isn't technical. The go/no-go decision concerning autonomous UGVs will be a moral and philosophical conundrum. Policy makers must eventually decide how much autonomy to give swarms of armed robots programmed to hunt and kill human beings on their own.

Concept of operations
The drafting of concept of operations (CONOPS) for UGVs in combat, and the harmonisation of these new CONOPS with military ethics and the laws of armed conflict must move ahead of, or at the very least in tandem with, technological advancements in UGV test labs.

Imagine a scenario where UGVs are used en masse. A wave of smaller THeMIS-type armed UGVs employing swarm tactics form the vanguard. These scour the ground to flush out enemy positions with machine gun fire and grenades as larger Hunter-type UGVs form the main unmanned strike force, bringing 30mm cannon and wire-guided ATGMs into play.

Then comes the armoured battle group with main battle tanks and 120mm mortars in overwatch positions as the (manned) Hunters and (manned) Bionix 2 infantry fighting vehicles advance in combat order to mop up and occupy terrain.

The introduction of UGVs opens many possibilities to land forces facing a manpower crunch either from declining enlistment rates or falling recruitment numbers. Unmanned platforms, big and small, will become increasingly capable and reliable as technology matures. Better reliability, availability and maintainability will make the UGV a realistic option for making up for shortfalls in defence manpower.

While it remains to be seen if the Singapore Army will adopt the unmanned Hunter and THeMIS, the field trials are necessary for Singapore's defence eco-system to stay updated with the latest trends and potential that combat robots might one day bring to land battles.

If we don't engage in this arena, other armies will.

You may also like:
SAF's Hunter provides a glimpse into the world of unmanned tanks. Click here
Singapore unveils unmanned Hunter AFV. Click here
Upcoming book on fictional Malaysia-Singapore war scenarios. Click here

No comments: