As the theory and usage of route clearance units has matured over recent years, the natural evolution has been to provide such units with assets that move personnel further and further from the blast. From forward-mounted sensors and mitigation payloads, to standoff interrogation arms and charge-placing robots, moving personnel further away from harm is closer to reality as technological sophistication grows. As this occurs, it is only natural that such advancements not only remove soldiers from the blast site via remote assets, but also aid in decision making by processing information with forms of semi-autonomy. Protecting soldiers from blast effects has always been a priority, but the conversation surrounding manned vs. unmanned route clearance isn’t exactly cut and dry. There must be deliberate purpose behind the evolution of technology, and its insertion must consider the equipment’s maturity and human relationship. Furthermore, leaders directing these evolutions must be cautious about how they prioritize. While minimizing blast effect is critical to the mission, it is important to remember that it is not the mission, and it can sometimes occur to the detriment of effectively locating and responding to threats.
Unmanned Clearance Technology: Where are we now?
Remote and semi-autonomous equipment capabilities are no longer science fiction. Today’s array of C-IED technology is far less clumsy than past tool kits, allowing operators to remotely engage targets with a high degree of precision. Unmanned ground and aerial systems come in a range of sizes and with a diverse set of payloads that help personnel to assess and engage suspected threats. These systems are more available, capable, and robust than ever before and allow operators to respond to targets immediately and with confidence. Semi-autonomous systems afford soldiers the same separation from potential threats as remote platforms, but they can also reduce the burden of decision making. By receiving and processing information independently, they allow operators to focus only on the most critical mission aspects.
As more technology payloads are integrated onto clearance platforms, a common operator frustration is information overload. The variability of IED composition and employment make individual sensors easily outmaneuvered by threat evolution. Traditionally, the act of compounding indicators (layering contextual, sensor, and observed indications of a threat to determine its likelihood) has been placed solely on the shoulders of personnel. Receiving and processing this information increases time on target, making it an excellent opportunity for technology to enable operators. While technologies currently exist to help operators process and prioritize this information, some of the most useful semi-autonomous technology focuses on limiting routine or tedious tasks of operators, allowing them to focus only on complex assessments and decision making. This technology, in appliqué form, gives clearance personnel the ability to scale operator involvement in these activities through tailorable manned, remote, or autonomous modes.
Human Input in Route Clearance
The reality of route clearance operations is, even with the most sophisticated unmanned equipment, human decision making and soldier intuition is still a crucial part of the job. While advanced sensors allow personnel to see in ways they otherwise could not, successful clearance teams still find themselves initiating a majority of their finds with the human eye and verifying with technology. While semi-autonomous systems can speed up information processing onsite, human experience brings an essential understanding of emplacer motive, device evolution, and anticipation of employment changes. Unmanned systems still look at the threat site through a relatively narrow, defined aperture, so having humans onsite to assess broader context is invaluable. Even using remote systems to respond to known threats has a tendency to encourage operator tunnel vision and reduce awareness of surrounding details that can be useful to understand full context for future threat engagements.
Technology Is an Enabler, not Replacement
The desire to eventually remove humans completely from clearance missions is an understandable one, but it must be done knowing current technology and recognizing the need for balance in mission prioritization. Filling trucks with personnel on missions with high likelihood and frequency of IED threat undermines the critical clearance task of protecting personnel; however, reducing the number of personnel to the point where information is overwhelming undermines the task of detection. Ultimately, leaders must acknowledge this balance and understand that if the mission was solely to reduce risk to personnel, it would be most effective to not go out on patrol. Until autonomy reaches a maturity where, in addition to its current focused advantages, it also has the broader awareness and conceptually informed decision making of intelligent soldiers, there will be a need for humans on missions. That said, technologies capable of manned or unmanned operation should continue to be matured and employed as enablers that offer clearance elements increased versatility.
Today, we see more and more remote platforms keeping operators safe from blasts, but these operators are still critical to the informed application of the platforms. Soldiers in the field currently benefit from technology that enables the quick and precise validation and response to threats with minimal human interaction. Tactical context dictates how involved humans and equipment are during any given IED encounter. One without the other is only part of the equation.
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