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Unmanned drone attacks and shape-shifting robots: War's remote-control future

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There is, too, the prospect of more money for military contractors eyeing a downturn in future defense budgets. Today, the amount of money being spent on research for military robotics surpasses the budget of the National Science Foundation, which, at $6.9 billion a year, funds nearly one-quarter of all federally supported scientific research at the nation's universities.

Military officials also see in the new technologies the possibility of savings in an era of shrinking budgets. Deploying forces overseas can now cost as much as $1 million a year per soldier.

Yet the biggest allure of the new high-tech armaments may be something as old as conflict itself: the desire to reduce the number of casualties on the battlefield and gain a strategic advantage over the enemy. As Lt. Gen. Richard Lynch, a commander in Iraq, observed at a conference on military robotics in Washington earlier this year: "When I look at the 153 soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice [under my command], I know that 80 percent of them were put in a situation where we could have placed an unmanned system in the same job."

Drones, in particular, seem the epitome of risk-free warfare for the nation using them – there are, after all, no pilots to shoot down. Moreover, the people who run them are often nowhere near the field of battle. Some 90 percent of the UAV operations over Afghanistan are flown by people in trailers in the deserts of Nevada. In Kandahar, soldiers help the planes take off and land and then hand over controls to the airmen in the US.

"We want to minimize the [human] footprint as much as possible," says the 451st Operations Group commander at the Kandahar airfield, where the effects of being close to the war are clearly visible: The plywood walls of the tactical operations center are lined with framed bits of jagged metal from mortars that have fallen on the airfield over the years.

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