The Ukraine conflict has no end in sight. Over the past two-plus years, Ukrainians have heroically fought against Russian aggression. Although they have been outnumbered in some cases 4 to 1, the Ukrainian Army has employed all means of advanced technologies to offset Russian numerical advantages.
Precision artillery munitions, Javelins, missiles such as NLAWs, and even first-person UAVs flown with grenades and RPG rockets attached to them, have all been employed to great effect. Unfortunately, none of it has been enough.
While the Ukrainian Army has successfully torn through all three echelons of the Russian defenses in the south, to this date, there have been no major military breakthroughs large enough and operationally significant enough to draw the war to a close. As it stands now, the war appears to be on the verge of a long, hard slog, likely to be followed by everyone’s favorite type of combat, the long war. With casualties on both sides already climbing into the hundreds of thousands, neither side can endure this level of attrition indefinitely.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Yes, the West has provided Ukraine with much-needed military hardware and funding, but a paradigm shift is required to break the stalemate. To offset their numerical and qualitative military disadvantages, Ukraine needs a technological or ground combat capacity surge to tip the balance of power on the battlefield in their favor. Projecting force via autonomous combat vehicles and logistics platforms returns mass to the battlefield without the requirement for additional human force structure and provides an advantage for Ukraine and the West without increasing risk to its soldiers.
The West needs a substantial investment in autonomous technology to provide Ukraine with the tools necessary to bring the war to end on its terms. As with other conflicts, the war in Ukraine is predominantly being fought with 20th Century weapons and now, 20th century trench warfare tactics. Open-source reporting indicates that autonomous technology for vehicles has not been part of the various military aid packages given by Western powers.
The reason has less to do with current technological limitations for autonomous vehicles and more to do with a failure to adapt off-the-shelf vehicles for the war. The autonomous systems needed in Ukraine have existed since 2012 and despite deploying them in pilot programs to Iraq and Afghanistan, DoD has only recently transitioned any of them to scaled programs of record.
The proliferation of this technology is mired down by policy, DoD turf wars, and politics, not by technology. For a country that is now reputed to be the most heavily mined country in the world, autonomous vehicles can be used for patrols, surveillance, and mining clearance in areas that would otherwise be too dangerous for soldiers to operate in. Without them, Ukrainians have had to resort to rudimentary manual methods more reminiscent of 1916 than 2023.
Ground autonomous vehicles could easily be leveraged to conduct mine-clearing operations, keeping civilians and military operators out of harm’s way. After all, robots don’t bleed - but that only holds true when the West actually enables them to arrive on the battlefield. Autonomous technology also acts as a force multiplier — one lead or following vehicle can handle the self-driving capabilities of follow-on vehicles through the use of platooning while simultaneously building high resolution maps to be used by follow-on robots.
Autonomous vehicles can also handle the more routine or mundane tasks such as logistics and sustainment tasks or operations. Automating these operations not only optimizes fuel and keeps personnel out of harm’s way but frees up soldiers’ cognitive load for more sophisticated or complex tasks that can only be handled by humans. Russia’s botched approach to logistics, and a complete disregard for mechanized infantry doctrine, and sustainment has been deemed a failure and considered to be one of the primary reasons behind the protracted nature of the war in Ukraine.
Autonomy will enable Ukraine to project power and effects deeper into contested territory without the need to put soldiers on the front lines. Autonomous platforms can drive deep into contested territory, gather intelligence with its onboard sensors, and fire rockets from there, all without sending any humans with the vehicles to the front lines.
There is a precedent for using autonomous systems in the Ukraine conflict in that Ukraine has already utilized semi-autonomous drones for combat purposes. But as important as drones are, they cannot provide the same extent of force projection associated with ground-based autonomous vehicles and cannot be used effectively in situations involving aerial denial. The industry collaboration porthole “Brave 1 “and other Ukrainian innovation initiatives have already recognized robots and autonomous systems as priority areas for defense tech innovation. And commercial companies are already demonstrating that this tech is ready and available for adoption now, not just in a theoretical future.
For example, RRAI recently demonstrated its autonomous vehicle technology in Kuwait for US Army Central (ARCENT). The onus is on Western powers to deliver autonomous vehicles to Ukraine. Unfortunately, the US has a mixed track record in shifting cutting-edge capabilities out of the research phase and into the hands of the warfighter.
These challenges exist within the DoD itself so one can only imagine how difficult it will be for American autonomous technology to be delivered into the hands of a foreign country. OSD and the Replicator effort need to focus on shifting through the bureaucratic maze. The days of new technology being mired on the whiteboard must end if autonomous technology is to have an impact on the Ukraine conflict.
The implications for the use of autonomous vehicles in Ukraine also has far-reaching consequences that go beyond the conflict. For example, given that the potential for a war between Taiwan and China looms as a distinct possibility, the U.S. and its allies must also look to the use of autonomous vehicles in the defense of Taiwan to prepare for the contingency of a land invasion. By integrating ground vehicle autonomy into military operations now, the U.S. military could approach the point where using autonomous systems becomes organic to its sprawling force structure and achieve superior capability over our adversaries. Since World War I, almost every major conflict has introduced new technology to warfare.
In World War I, it was the introduction of machine guns. World War II brought the atomic age. The first Persian Gulf War brought with it the need for strategic air superiority. The next step change will be for the country that can dictate the use of autonomous technology in warfare.
Clara Satria is Analyst for Defense and Pat Acox is Head of Defense at RRAI, a vehicle autonomy company providing autonomous products and services for defense, commercial and municipal applications.