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Shrinking Army Studies Buying Robots to Replace Soldiers

The U.S. Army, downsizing after more than a decade of war, is considering replacing discharged soldiers with robots and drones, according to a news report.

Gen. Robert Cone, commander of Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Va., said the service may decrease the headcount of brigade combat teams to about 3,000 soldiers from roughly 4,000 soldiers in coming years and replace the lost manpower with unmanned systems, writes Paul McLeary of Defense News.

"I've got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of maneuverability, in terms of the future of the force," the four-star general said at last week's aviation symposium organized by the Association of the United States Army, according to the article.

While Cone reportedly talked about the possibility of using lighter, less armored unmanned ground vehicles to follow manned platforms into combat, such an application might still be decades away. Due in part to automatic budget cuts, the Defense Department is actually decreasing research and development funding for unmanned systems this year by more than than a third, or $1.3 billion.

"We knew budgets would be declining," Dyke Weatherington, the Pentagon's director of unmanned warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, recently told in an interview. "I don't think two years ago we understood how significant the down slope was going to be so this road map much more clearly addresses the fiscal challenges," he said, referring to the department's latest report on the future of unmanned systems.

What's more, the vast majority of the U.S. military's requested drone funding isn't for ground systems. The Pentagon's $4.1 billion budget request for unmanned systems this year includes $3.7 billion for air systems, $330 million for maritime systems and $13 million for ground systems, according to budget documents.

Still, the Pentagon's inventory of unmanned ground systems are slated to increase beginning in 2016 and companies are working with the military to develop the next-generation technology for any number of applications, from defusing bombs to clearing routes to carrying supplies, according to the department's so-called road map.

Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot Corp., for example, has built a suite of ground robots for infantry troops and explosive ordnance disposal technicians, including the FirstLook, SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle) and PackBot.

The Army, meanwhile, is expected to shrink from more than a half a million active-duty soldiers today to around 420,000 soldiers by 2019. That figure, however, may eventually fall to as low as 380,000 if automatic budget cuts known as sequestration remain in effect, Pentagon officials have said.

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