NATO’s robot navy hints at the future of warfare

By Matt Field, September 27, 2019

An unmanned British Royal Navy vessel patrols a harbor near Troia, Portugal, during a NATO exercise. Credit: NATO. An unmanned British Royal Navy vessel patrols a harbor near Troia, Portugal, during a NATO exercise. Credit: NATO.

A military exercise in Europe involves storming a beach, collecting intel, and boarding a ship. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. But what is different about the NATO exercise that ends on Friday in Portugal are the people involved—or rather the relative lack thereof. The alliance is finishing up what’s being billed as its largest unmanned maritime vehicle exercise ever. It’s essentially fielding a robot navy, replete with dozens of vehicles in the air, on the water, and beneath the waves.

A NATO video reel shows an inflatable boat with a formidable-seeming gun stalking the water of a harbor near Troia, sans driver or gunner. Another scene has a man wading into murky water to set loose a small autonomous vehicle that looks a lot like a torpedo. Another man launches a flying drone into the air almost like a shot-putter would throw a shot. Then there’s the clip of a crew hoisting up what looks like a surfer-less surfboard. The unmanned vehicles can be used in surveillance, mine-clearing, and anti-submarine warfare, NATO says.

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Robot warfare is cheaper and puts fewer troops in harm’s way. In the video, Kevin Moyer, who chairs the steering board of the NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems Initiative, puts it like this: “We can’t cover everything with manned assets. One, it’s a cost problem. And number two, you want to keep the man out of that danger zone, right?”

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According to Britain’s Royal Navy, NATO’s exercise is bringing the navy “one closer step to our Navy’s interoperability with unmanned systems.” And, presumably, another step closer to robots clashing against robots on the battlefield.

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