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Driverless Army Combat Vehicles Face Uncertain Future, General Says

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The U.S. Army is determined to stay on its modernization path, but fielding new cannons, combat vehicles and helicopters over the next decade will not be the biggest hurdle to building this future force, according to the general in charge of the effort.

The service also wants combat systems capable of controlling themselves, a vision that will likely be the most difficult to achieve, Gen. Mike Murray, head of Army Futures Command (AFC), said recently.

“It is probably this concept of full autonomy that is going to be the hard challenge,” he told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.

The U.S. has made significant strides in building autonomous systems that can operate in the air and on the sea surface, Murray said, adding that commercial industry “is getting pretty close to having autonomous vehicles driving down highways.”

“But if you are going completely cross-country, there are no lane markings, there are no street signs, there [are] no vehicles around to try to identify where you are,” he said. “So, solving this problem of completely autonomous cross-country movement I think is probably it.”

Murray recently announced that AFC will reach full operating capability July 31, roughly a year after he assumed command of the new organization, which was created to oversee the Army’s ambitious modernization effort.

Another challenge facing the service is the debate over the ethical application of artificial intelligence (AI), another key technology needed for success on the future battlefield, he said.

“I just get this mental image when I talk about artificial intelligence and I am in uniform. People start to think I am [talking] about the Terminator,” Murray said, referring to the popular, big-screen movies depicting fictitious Defense Department robots turning against mankind.

Murray said that using AI to acquire targets may reduce the possibility of deadly mistakes.

“I just remember back … working with kids we were going to put behind the main gun of a [tank]. If you were 80% accurate using flash cards, like I learned math in high school, you went behind it,” he said. “You can train any algorithm; it’s not that that algorithm is going to pull the trigger. It’s going to help recognize, so actually I think it makes us safer and reduces collateral damage.”

Murray, however, did not downplay concerns over AI and said, “It needs to be a national debate; ultimately, the American people will decide.”

“I always remind people, too, that this debate is not happening in other countries, so artificial intelligence is coming to a battlefield,” he said. “It’s not a question of if, it’s just a question of when and how far behind or ahead do we want to be when that happens.”

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

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