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The robot war has begun

The Russia-Ukraine war began to slide into situations where Ukrainian robots fight Russian robots, and even attack robot factories in the heart of Russia. The attacks from last week already involved robots with basic autonomy, at least according to the Ukrainians' claim

Ram-tanks from 1940. Source: Wikipedia
Ram-tanks from 1940. Source: Wikipedia

The Russian robots advanced slowly. Everything was calm. Across the river and a rustling engine. Suddenly thunder and lightning. Basically, it was a Ukrainian drone with explosives. Then all was quiet again, and Putin's robots stopped working.

Another battle ended in the robot war.

This description may sound picturesque or fanciful, but it is completely true. Without our noticing, the Russia-Ukraine war began to slide into situations where Ukrainian robots fight Russian robots, and even attack robot factories in the heart of Russia. The attacks from last week already involved robots with basic autonomy, at least according to the Ukrainians' claim.

And judging by Ukraine's stated intentions, we are expected to see many battles and many such robots in the coming months - and perhaps in the decades that follow.

Russian robots

No one was surprised to see Russian robots on the battlefield. The Soviet bear tried to diversify its means of warfare already in World War II, during which it launched the Dumping tanks. These were tanks armed with flares, which were controlled from a distance and assisted the ground forces in the invasion of Finland. The idea was excellent, the execution failed. Drop-tanks were particularly vulnerable to mines, obstacles on the ground and weather conditions.

It was a crushing blow to Russian pride, and development efforts were halted for several decades. And then they started over. In 2014, Russia established a new military robotics laboratory, which began to launch robots of all kinds. The stated intention of the laboratory was to replace About a third of all Russian forces in robotic and remote-controlled systems by 2025. 

In 2020, the lab stepped up a gear, releasing statements about its intention to replace robots with soldiers on the battlefield. The classified road map of the Russian army from that time included the development of robots that could operate in the field, up to the level where According to one of the officials

"Human fighters will begin to be gradually replaced by their robotic "brothers", who will be able to act faster, more accurately and more selectively than humans."

Russia continued and launched a series of robotic tools of various types. These included Autonomous APC, As well as A multipurpose robot He could act as a bomb on wheels or to evacuate the wounded or both. Some of the tools, like a small robotic tank full of weapons like thorns on a hedgehog, even experienced Real fighting in Syria in 2020. 

We emphasize that most of the Russian and also the Ukrainian robotic weapons are not fully autonomous. There is not much similarity between them and impressive robots like those that can be found in science fiction movies like "The Matrix". They are unable to choose their own goals or navigate the terrain by themselves. These robots have a fully human operator, who sits a few thousand meters away and controls them remotely. And still - robots.

It is unpleasant to say, but even in the battles in Syria the robots did not register an impressive success. Their sensors did not function well, so the operators had a hard time hitting targets effectively. The commands passed slowly over the radio, and in some cases the robots carried out the firing command with a considerable delay. The robots did not cope well with the hard ground and suffered cumulative damage to the chassis and springs. And perhaps worst of all - the radio signals were disrupted by the presence of buildings, hills and trees, so that the robots could only be effectively controlled from distances of a few hundred meters.

Russian Uran-9 robots, tested in Syria. Source: National Interest

All this history explains why the Russians were among the most advanced players in the field of military robotics, and why they decided to send six new robots armed with grenade launchers to the battlefield at the end of March.

According to Russian publications, the robotic unit - which consists entirely of robots - went into action in the attack on the 47th brigade of Ukraine. The robots, which look like tiny tanks XNUMX meters long, threw "hundreds of grenades" at the Ukrainian forces and pinned them to the spot. 

What could humans do in such a situation?

Of course, to call their own robots.

Ukrainian robot army

The big surprise of the Russia-Ukraine war was, well, not Russia. Ukraine has realized in the last year that it cannot rely only on the sophisticated weapons it receives from the West. Yes, she receives almost as a gift missiles that are inspected with a magnifying glass for defects, sophisticated planes costing tens of millions of dollars, radars that are the masterpiece of the American security systems - and cost accordingly. But in the past year, Republicans in Congress have begun to speak out against the non-stop gift-giving, and Ukrainians have felt the tap turn off.

So they started making their own weapons.

According to a report in Forbes, half a year ago the Ukrainian government mobilized a network of hundreds of small factories, which together assemble at least 50,000 drones every month. The drones are equipped with a grenade or a small explosive warhead and are remotely controlled. how far? It already depends on the drones and their operators, but many of them can reach distances of whole kilometers. 

These drones make a real difference on the battlefield. as he said Samuel Bendt, an expert in Russian military technology - 

"Right now, if something moves on the battlefield, a drone sees it and hits it."

He did not exaggerate. Twitter – now known as X – is filled with videos that range from tragic to comical, in which drones chase down Russian soldiers and blow them up one by one. In one of the videos which looks more like a social experiment, one of the Russian soldiers sees the drone about to be killed, and begs him to kill his friend first. The drone operator responds to his request... and a few seconds later a new drone arrives and blows up the first soldier as well. In another video, you see a Russian soldier who was lucky and the drone hit him but did not explode. After a brief victory dance, the Russian decides to make sure the drone doesn't come back to life and hits it with his rifle... causing it to explode with all the expected results for the late soldier. In another case, a drone arrives for a group of Russian soldiers who decided to go for a siesta and smoke marijuana in a moment of rest. Here too, the results are predictable. Buzz kill.

A Russian soldier surrenders to a Ukrainian soldier

The drones don't just focus on humans. Evidence from the field proves that even armored tanks are not resistant to them. They can target the weak points in the tank's armor, and explode directly at them. In this way, drones costing several hundred dollars can Destroy an M-1 Abraham tank whose price on the black market is approximately nine million dollars. 

To date, the Ukrainians have managed to destroy 2,600 tanks in the war. It is difficult to estimate how many of these assassinations the drones are responsible for. According to the Ukrainians, the drones are responsible for taking out almost half from the tanks destroyed from use. There are claims that gliders are so effective against tanks simply because they are They do not expect attacks from above and therefore are not well armored in areas accessible to drones. This is probably true, but it doesn't help the Russian tanks anymore, and it certainly won't help the trucks, the artillery systems and the rest of the military equipment that the Ukrainian drones range and destroy with impressive efficiency.

So it's no surprise that when the Russians sent a platoon of tiny robo-tanks to engage a Ukrainian brigade, the Ukrainians called in their own robots - the drones.

A Ukrainian drone blows up a Russian tank. Source: THE SUN

Robot to robot war

Then there were no more Russian robots left, and the unexploded drones returned to their operators.

Robot Wars, to sum it up in one word, was boring. And in two words: very boring. The drones arrived, approached the Russian robots, circled them curiously for a moment or two, then aimed for contact. Literally, since every kiss by a drone on a robotic tank caused them both to explode. boom. boom. Boom and some more. 

But their story does not end there.

The Ukrainians are discovering new methods of warfare out of necessity - and at the same time, they are trying to make sure that their enemies cannot use these methods themselves to their advantage. They have already decided to buildAn army of drones", as they say, but what can they do to prevent the Russians from building such an army of their own?

Send drones to blow up enemy drone factories, of course.

Between March and April, drones - in fact, they looked more like unmanned aerial vehicles with rigid wings, the kind we have become accustomed to seeing in recent decades - were sent on suicide missions in the heart of Russia. The winged robots focused in oil refineries and at least one drone factory, although these were 1,200 kilometers away from Ukraine. It is not clear how much damage these robots have caused to the Russian drone factories, but it is currently estimated that they disabled 14% of the Russians' oil refining capabilities.

According to the Ukrainians' own claims, some of the robots sent to the mission already had their own basic artificial intelligence, so that they could navigate through enemy territory and complete the mission even when they lost contact with the operator.

"The use of artificial intelligence enabled accuracy even under radio jamming." A source close to Ukraine's drone program explained to CNN. "Each aircraft has a computer with satellite information and terrain information. The flights are scheduled in advance with our colleagues, and the aircraft follows the route plan to allow us to hit targets with an accuracy of meters."

Another interviewee explained to CNN that thanks to machine vision, the robotic aircraft are able to identify their position along the flight path. They don't need communication with satellites or anything at all. they Fully autonomous. Deadly robots that are sent on elimination missions without human intervention throughout. 

So, at least, the Ukrainians claim. And even if they are exaggerating - and they certainly are - we can still expect to see robots with this level of autonomy sooner rather than later.

And what a wonderful and terrible world it is going to be.

A world of murderous robots

What would a world look like where countries fight each other with robots? Part of the answer may come from the common saying that robots are used to answer three types of tasks: boring, dirty and dangerous.

Of the three, the need for robots to perform dangerous tasks is obvious. We will see robots everywhere where human lives are at stake, there is not much new in that. 

Robots will also be able to perform 'dirty' tasks, and thus may change the face of war for the better - or for the worse. The sad truth is that humans are not very good soldiers. They are intuitively reluctant to use lethal force on another except in a situation of immediate life-threatening, and need extensive training to overcome this reluctance. When they finally do exercise power, they can easily get out of control and kill innocent people in the momentary storm of emotion. It looks good in action movies, but less so in wars where surgical operations against enemy combatants are necessary, but without harming unrelated civilians.

Robots do not have the first - or the second - difficulty. They will do what they are assigned to do, without asking questions and without questioning the orders given to them. Replacing soldiers with robots may lead to a dramatic decrease in the rate of peripheral damage - the damage caused to anyone who is not the main target of the attackers. And on the other hand, if robots are given immoral instructions - they will not hesitate about them or show mercy to the victims.

Last but not least, and perhaps the hardest for us to grasp, is the "boring" chore. The robots of the future will be able to act like mines: to continue functioning for many years and persist in the task defined for them, according to the way they interpret it. We may yet see robot factories that survive many years after the war should have normally ended, and continue to produce robots that will perpetuate and continue the conflicts.

Will we know how to use the robots in wars wisely and carefully? Will we know how to control them, limit their use and design moral rules for them that will serve them even in the most brutal battles?

I am very afraid that we will all find out the answers to these questions - in the future.

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