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Battle bot: the future of war?

Sharpshooting robots evoke 'Terminator.' The more pertinent question is how these automated soldiers will transform military conflict.

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They've spied on the enemy, sniffed for deadly chemical and radioactive emissions, and sacrificed themselves to detonate terrorist bombs. Now robots are ready to strap on guns and fight the battles too.

This spring, the United States armed forces are expected to deploy 18 Talon robots to Iraq. The semi-autonomous machines will be capable of firing rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and rockets with better accuracy than human soldiers. They're the latest step in a surge of battlefield "bots" that are increasingly shouldering the military's most dangerous jobs.

"Terminator" they're not. Only a human soldier using radio controls from a distance has the ability to "squeeze the trigger." But if battle bots ever do take on the bulk of frontline fighting, the results could transform military strategy.

"It's going to change the fundamental equation of war," says John Pike, a security policy analyst who runs the respected website The evolution of war is at its midpoint, Mr. Pike says. "First you had human beings without machines. Then you had human beings with machines. And finally you have machines without human beings."

While robots firing weapons on their own may be a decade or more away, even today's remote-controlled versions have changed the rules, he adds. By turning war into "a video game," the machines make it much easier for soldiers to kill without remorse by putting the human operator at "one remove" from the act of killing.

Fighting robots would be "on the short list" of seminal events in all of military history, he says, right alongside the development of iron weapons, gunpowder, and the atomic bomb.

In the air, an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft developed by the US, the Predator, first flew over the Bosnia conflict in 1995. More recently, Predators have fired Hellfire missiles against ground targets in Iraq.

On the ground, the military has used bomb-disposal bots for years. In Afghanistan and Iraq, these machines have carved out a distinguished service record.


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