What is most striking about modern warfare is the synthesis of technologies. A light truck for carrying troops is over a century old. Tube-launched artillery mounted on trucks was a stable of World War II. Explosive-tipped drones are a new variation on loitering munitions that have been around in some form since the 1980s. Combined, however, these components turn a light and mobile troop carrier into not just an artillery piece, but an artillery piece that can potentially scout an entire battlefield and then launch multiple precision strikes across it. It is the synthesis that makes the machine.
On display at the Beijing Civil-Military Integration Expo 2019 from May 6 to May 8 was a truck outfitted with 12 tubes capable of launching drones. Developed by Yanjing Auto, the 4x4 vehicle can drive off-roads and has a top speed of around 77 mph. The truck is arguably the least impressive part of the whole package, but the mundanity of its appearance and the easy mobility it provides likely make it a perfectly viable platform for shoot-and-scoot attacks.
The heart of the truck’s striking power is in its tubes.
Four of the tubes launch smaller SULA30 drones, which are scouts with over an hour of flight time, according to reporting from China’s state-owned Global Times. The remaining eight tubes will hold larger SULA89 drones, which can carry over 4 pounds of explosives and crash into targets at a speed of over 110 mph.
Notably absent from the report is the role of humans in the targeting. The scout drones can relay information back to humans in a command center, but it’s unclear if the one-way drone missiles will fly to targets selected by humans or make the choice of target while in transit. The volume of drones launched, and the way rocket artillery is designed to fire rapidly in salvos, suggest that human control would largely be limited to target selection before firing.
The duration of flight times for target-selecting munitions is already a major concern for nongovernmental organizations interested in stopping an AI arms race. The longer a drone-like weapon flies before ultimately exploding something, the more opportunity there is for the situation on the ground to change and the targets to change from lawful to lawful in the presence of civilians, and that’s without accounting for false positives. How command-and-control is built into the exploding flocks of flying robots launched from vehicles is a major concern with both tactical and ethical implications. This is hardly a unique problem for China; two U.S. companies announced plans May 7 for a scouting drone that can tube-launch other attritable aerial assets.
It’s also a risk that extends beyond just the formal militaries of superpowers. At the show, Yanjing Auto noted that the 4x4 has variants that can field multiple armed hexacopter scout drones or an array of eight missiles. All of these, including the truck with drone-launching tubes, are reportedly available for export.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.