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Army Eyes Autonomous Convoys to Prevent Future Casualties

In this 2008 photo, a Convoy Security Element with 10th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, aligns a convoy  out of Forward Operating Base, Warrior, Kirkuk, Iraq. (U.S. Army/Spc. Jason Jordan via AP)
In this 2008 photo, a Convoy Security Element with 10th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, aligns a convoy out of Forward Operating Base, Warrior, Kirkuk, Iraq. (U.S. Army/Spc. Jason Jordan via AP)

The U.S. Army hopes to prevent many of the casualties of the Iraq War from occurring in future conflicts by sending semi-autonomous convoys of combat supplies on roads that are vulnerable to enemy attack.

Part of the Army's new modernization strategy is to develop teams of manned and unmanned ground combat vehicles that give commanders the option of sending autonomous combat vehicles to attack the enemy and reduce the risk of friendly casualties.

But Army leaders are also eyeing this rapidly evolving technology for logistic operations that resupply combat formations with ammunition, water, food and other vital supplies, Army Secretary Mark Esper told an audience today at the Atlantic Council.

Esper recently visited the Army's Tank Automotive Research, Development & Engineering Center in Warren, Michigan and took a ride in a semi-autonomous vehicle prototype.

"It was being led by a manned vehicle," Esper said. "It was a closed course, but we were doing off-road travel."

Even semi-autonomous vehicles show great promise, because they could be linked in a convoy "with maybe only two persons in the lead vehicle," he said.

U.S. forces suffered heavy casualties in Iraq when the enemy routinely attacked supply convoys with improvised explosive devices.

"If you look back to the Iraq War, one of the most dangerous duties was driving, riding in a convoy between Kuwait city and Baghdad," Esper said. "We lost many, many soldiers, too many, to IED attacks and other attacks on convoys."

The commercial industry has already made advancements in autonomous technology, but there are still many hurdles before it is ready for military use, Esper said.

"We have particular challenges with the military because, unlike the commercial sector, we have to develop systems that can maneuver off-road, that can maneuver in our elements ... that can navigate obstacles, whether they are trees or garbage or rocks, whatever the case may be," Esper said. "And then on top of that, they have to be able to maneuver against an enemy force formation, so it's very complicated."

The Army hopes to have its first Robotic Combat Vehicle technology demonstrator ready by 2021 so it can help inform future designs of autonomous combat vehicles, Army officials said.

"You can see the future ahead; if we can get to that point, it will give us a great deal of capability and incredible overmatch on the future battlefield," Esper said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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