Joseph H. Guth, Ph.D.
The military mission against terrorism and states that have sponsored terrorism now has a new theater of operations. Within this theater, most of the assets of an enemy will now use the time-tested defense of hiding within the earth. Its for certain that the military must develop a whole new line of weaponry designed to attack and neutralize this type of target without igniting an even larger problem.
Such is the situation now. The only bunker-busting systems available to the U.S. military are designed along the lines of bombs that are dropped from aircraft or possibly brought in by cruise missile. The need for remote control of these weapons is highly desirable but the accuracy and response times may not be sufficient to address the topographic interference of the terrain or the depth and convolution of the tunnels leading to the main stores of these resources. What the military and executive branch of the U.S. government seem to have left is a somewhat heavy-handed and unnecessary reliance on either land-based troop attack or small nuclear bombs. A very important and unwelcome door will be opened in the world the next time the U.S. uses any size nuclear bomb on foreign soil.
Conventional high-explosive and thermobaric damage can be delivered to remote locations, including underground bunkers, caves and other installations by robotic delivery systems. These systems may by as simple as a remote-controlled vehicle or as complex as a pre-programmed target, self-sufficient, all-terrain robot with full onboard computer and artificial intelligence for obstacle avoidance solving. The systems can be small, quiet, multi-treaded/crawler/leg-walking, and equipped with day and night vision, sensors of all types (e.g., contact, motion, thermal, sound, vision, proximity), and individual defensive armament. They could be gyroscopically guided (needed for orientation information) with or without Global Positioning System navigation. They could even be guided by infrared and radio transmission seeking detectors. They could be deployed with camouflage appropriate for the terrain they will operate in, and can carry payloads sufficient to sterilize and kill all living things within caves, bunkers and underground installations. Hundreds can be deployed at one time to stealthily crawl through a rocky valley and up into caves and bunkers. Where obstacles exist, the first robots could sacrifice their payloads to open up and remove such obstacles while communicating their location to the other robotic units within a certain distance. If they encounter obstacles that could not be opened up through explosives, such as steep ravines, then secondary robots with bridge-span functions could be guided in to allow the others to ford such obstacles. This would allow follow-up units to continue to move towards the target until entrance was gained and sufficient units in place before the entire ensemble of units was detonated. Solar panels could add hours or days onto their in-field lifespans should deployment have to be at greater distances. A veritable plethora of robotic warriors that would continue to operate day and night to attack a predetermined target until success was attained.
These systems could be put in place by a number of methods. One such could be using the same type of inflated cushion and bouncing ball that NASA developed for the exploration of Mars. Imagine a fleet of cargo planes flying over a remote valley at night in which hundreds of caves with enemy personnel and munitions were sequestered. Hundreds or even thousands of these robotic systems were air-dropped. When they came to rest, they would open like flower petals disgorging their near-sentient soldiers. The command-and-control would be from remote locations onboard planes, ships or land-based and would even be connected to the continental U.S. through satellite relay. As each unit oriented and located itself, it could map out its intended route to a predetermined target. If such target were not preprogrammed, heat-seeking or radio emitting sources would be selected based upon enemy transmission frequencies.
If such a scenario appears far-fetched, it is only a matter of time before the current popular interest in battle bots is fully expanded to real military and police/fire fighting usage of robotic systems. Such systems have been around in preliminary stage of development for a number of years. Many explosive-handling robots and surveillance robots have been used by law enforcement around the world. The military has a number of remote-controlled and robotic systems designed to address other needs in other scenarios. This article is suggesting that a significant research effort be made to develop them for underground target attack. This will always be a needed capability since it is the one place that none of the other fighting systems (outside of direct human personnel) can effectively accomplish.
Dr. Joseph H. Guth, a chemist, is president of Scientific and Forensic Services, Inc. of Norfolk, VA. He has been in basic and applied research, university teaching and commercial laboratory operations and is now a consultant. His interest in robotics, computers, artificial intelligence and expert systems goes back to the 1950s when he witnessed one of the earliest fully mechanical engineering computers in operation and read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot.