Llamas of war sidelined by robots, part of growing trend

Israel solidifies lead in unmanned and autonomous systems for military
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Even animals are losing their jobs.

Llamas, long used by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as porters to hump equipment through difficult terrain, are set to get their marching orders. By September, the last of the IDF's infantry llamas will be replaced by an experimental deployment of robots, according to Tel Aviv-based Haaretz.

The IDF hasn't released much information about the bots, but they look like an updated version of Israeli contractor Roboteam's PROBOT, a lightweight heavy payload unmanned vehicle. PROBOT can carry up to 1500 pounds and maintain speeds of 6 mph through rough terrain. Designed to accompany small infantry teams, it can be teleoperated via remote control, set to follow the leader, or use GPS waypoint navigation.

The move to unmanned vehicles is part of a growing trend as militaries around the world ramp up use of unmanned ground, sea, and air vehicles.

In the last decade, aerial drones have changed modern war tactics while raising intractable ethical questions. For military contractors, the move to small unmanned systems and away from piloted aircraft and tanks, what's known in military speak as "exquisitely manned systems," is big business. The unmanned ground vehicle market is projected to grow from USD 1.49 Billion in 2016 to USD 2.63 Billion by 2021.

The U.S. Army is currently experimenting with a number of robotic systems, including the MAARS unmanned ground vehicle, which is designed for reconnaissance and surveillance and can be mounted with a machine gun.

But Israel, one of the world's top weapons exporters, with $6.5 billion in annual sales, leads the way in the development of military robots and unmanned vehicles. About a third of all research and development in the country goes to military products, according to Yaakov Katz, author of The Weapon Wizards, significantly more than the U.S. or Germany as a percentage of GDP. Israel is the leading exporter of drones and has a long history with unmanned vehicles.

In 1969, the IDF flew camera-mounted toy airplanes along the Suez canal in what is considered the first use of drones in combat operations. In 1986, Israel supplied the U.S. Navy with its first combat drone, known as Pioneer, which was used in the First Gulf War.

Currently, Israel deploys the Guardium UGV, designed by defense contractor IAI, along its border with Syria. Robotic Ford F-350s, known as Segevs, patrol elsewhere, and autonomous snakes are used to map out underground tunnel systems.

Last year, Israel announced development of a 25-pound combat robot called Dogo, which is equipped with six cameras for a 360 degree view and carries an integrated Glock 9mm pistol.


The MAARS combat robot

The move to robotic warfare has plenty of critics. Among several compelling arguments against the growth of automation and unmanned vehicles in war, the most alarming may be that those systems, designed to keep people out of danger, will inevitably lead to more war and make the world more dangerous.

"The depersonalization of warfare lowers the stakes of declaring war in the first place," argues Veronica Ma in widely-circulated article from the Harvard International Review. "Therefore, with regards to international law and the long-term goals of military programs, automated warfare may be self-defeating and even counterintuitive."

For now, drones and military robots are big business, and it seems like a foregone conclusion we're going to see more of them on battlefields and borders.

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