In the southwest of England sits Tregantle Beach. Overlooked by a stone fort built in the 1850s, the beach is a thin sliver of sand at high tide and a wide swath of gentle beach during low tide. This month, the Royal Marines practiced a landing on Tregantle, their approach overseen by robots in the sea, on the land and in the air.
As the United Kingdom retools its military for the realities of the mid-21st century, it’s looking to augment human power with robotic aid. We saw this most recently with the reintroduction of the Black Hornet, a palm-sized aerial scout that the UK retired in 2017, only to reintroduce to the force in 2019. And we can see it in the military exercise on Tregantle Beach.
The scale of the exercise itself was modest: a company from the 40 Commando unit, along with 1 Assault Group Royal Marines. Under the cover of darkness and the watchful sensors of a drone overhead, the marines brought their landing craft to the shore. Scouting ahead in the water were what appeared to be light boats, adapted to run without an onboard operator. On the hills above the beach, observing the advance below, were autonomous vehicles made by QinetiQ. Roughly the size of a car, the modular Titan platform sported a turret features missiles and a machine gun.
Exercises such as Commando Warrior are at least as much about gathering data as they are implementing training. The data collected by the surveillance robots was relayed to the relevant human teams, appearing in digestible actionable intelligence on hand-held tablets. It was also relayed to the Commando headquarters, and humans not actively in the exercise were on hand at Tregantle to watch how the robots handled the challenge.
While not explicitly stated in the Royal Marines’ presentation of the exercise, the presence of the Titan robots on the hills suggests one of two possible future scenarios for war. The first, and less likely one, is that before humans land on a beach, the robots would be covertly deployed, and then set up to provide protection. The other, likelier possibility is that the Titans represented the robots of the defender, a hazard and threat to plan around, avoid or defeat. We’ve already seen other nations train robots in formations with infantry, or, rather, train infantry in formation with robots. As countries steadfastly plan for the future, the existence of autonomous weapons on the other side is not anything anyone wants to encounter unprepared.
Watch a video of the exercise below: