M1 Abrams Plays Tennis [VIDEO]

Are tanks obsolete?  Not if combat involves tennis playing, as the video below demonstrates. No word if the tank can jump over the net if it wins.

After being totally blown away by the M1 Abrams’ speed and agility, I learned this video is FAKED.  Still, this brings up a very real issue.  If tanks in reality can’t play tennis, what are they good for?

Army Chief of Staff Odierno testified that in 2012 before Congress that “…we don’t need the tanks. Our tank fleet is two and a half years old on average now. We’re in good shape and these are additional tanks that we don’t need” (Military.com). Congress went ahead and approved the purchase of additional, unwanted tanks. The fact that tanks are produced in Ohio, a critical state in presidential elections is just a coincidence.

Even before Odierno testified, some folks were touting the tank’s demise. Some pointed to the widespread destruction of Israeli armor in the 1973 war by handheld anti-tank weapons as a sign of the tank’s obsolescence. On the other hand, Michael Peck in War is Boring notes that the Israeli losses happened when they violated basic tactical rules, such as failing to support tanks with infantry.

To get an idea about the debate I suggest you read a summary of different points of views in The Atlantic The Wire.  It’s a bit dated, but the arguments are still relevant.

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Odierno on Army’s Future

Recently, Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno gave a presentation to the Association of United States Army on “Force 2025 and Beyond.” If you want to know what the Army’s head honcho is planning for its future, check out this nifty PDF.

One thing that will definitely not change is the military’s fondness for acronyms. Reading Odierno’s presentation requires a high tolerance for initials as well as an instinctual knowledge about matters such as the difference between USAPRAC and USPACOM. After wandering through his dense forest of acronyms, I came away with the following impressions:

The Army doesn’t have a clue about the future. While it is true that he identifies possible threats, you don’t have to read between the lines too much to know that Odierno has no idea what kind of war the Army should prepare for. This is not a big surprise, and is something that this blog has discussed before (see here).

Odierno’s solution for this quandary?  Among other things, the Army needs “adaptability.”  I suggest you play a drinking game with a buddy. Download the PDF of Odierno’s presentation, and have your friend read it out loud. Every time he says “adapt” or “adaptability,” take a shot. You may want to start off with something light, because you’ll take 6 shots on the first page alone.

Doubling down on technology. Seeing a high-level bureaucrat reject common institutional wisdom is a bit like watching a magnificent sunrise. It has happened before and it will happen again. However, you should still pause and admire its beauty.

Odierno clearly feels like he is operating in a financial squeeze (in real terms, the Defense budget continues to rise). However, he is not following the usual institutional practice of cutting Research & Development in times of austerity. Odierno could have simply followed recent trends and simply off-loaded R&D responsibilities onto vendors, i.e. “I don’t know what we want, but I want you to build it.”

While the Army will use commercial suppliers, Odierno makes it clear that he is not abandoning R&D. In fact, technology and innovation is a big priority and he discusses it a great deal.

While I applaud Odierno’s not sacrificing R&D on the budget chopping block, I do wonder about the US military’s continued reliance on technology to give it an “edge” (or in Odierno-ese, “overmatch capabilities”), especially in counter-insurgency scenarios. Does it make sense to use million dollar missiles to destroy ancient pick-up trucks?

Most US military personnel in the Pacific region belong to the Army. Odierno makes a point of making this point. You know all those folks who say that the Pacific Tilt means cutting the Army’s budget, so that money can be diverted to the Air Force and Navy?  This is Odierno’s way of thumbing his nose at them.

80% of “rotorcraft” will be replaced.  Good time to be a helicopter manufacturer.

High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) will reduce the need for stockpiles.  Yeah! We’re finally going to get ray guns!  Or at least “ray cannons.”

“Alternative sources of water.”  What has the Army learned after fighting for 13 years in an arid environment?  The importance of water.  I wouldn’t be surprised that out of all the technologies the military is currently developing that water purifications and generation end-up being the most world changing.

Healthcare & medicine.  More than a few areas of technological development that Odierno describes involved healthcare of some kind. Considering its skyrocketing cost, not a big surprise.

The future of unmanned systems is so last year. Odierno mentions Autonomous Aerial Resupply as a “potential capability.”  This is the only time he mentions unmanned systems.

I have been optimistic about the role of unmanned systems in US forces (see here). However, their relative absence from a technology-heavy discussion by the Army’s Chief of Staff does raise a red flag. Vendors of unmanned systems have visions of military robots doing everything from flipping burgers to fighting fires. If they want the Army to share that vision, they have some work to do.

“Sustaining investments in the technical workforce is paramount…However, sequestration could undermine these efforts.” Some congressmen have been vigilant in protecting soldiers form budget cuts. Not so much the military’s civilian workforce, which has been hammered by reduced funds. Odierno wants folks to understand that the guys who carry guns and wear camouflage are not the only ones who need protecting. The guys who carry calculators and wear white shirts are also important.

Odierno covers a lot of ground in his brief discussion. The above list is far from complete and only represents my overall impression. His presentation is worth reading in its entirety.

What do you think? What struck you about Odierno’s presentation?

Send your thoughts to: editor@amrel.com

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For years, “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) has been a dependable staple of top tech trend lists.  Originally started by employees demanding to use their own devices for business purposes, companies realized that they could boost productivity and decrease costs by adopting BYOD.

Should your enterprise adopt BYOD? Below is a summary of the pros and cons.

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Employees are happy to pay employers’ costs

To a certain extent, BYOD is part of a larger trend of employers shifting costs to employees. Some cost-conscious companies have declared long-time workers to be independent contractors. Workers are not only stripped of benefits, but also forced to pay for their own equipment.

The irony is that BYOD is often demanded by employees. The increased cost to them is usually negligible (they have personal smartphones anyway), and they are saved the hassle of dealing with a separate business device.

The first response by enterprises to BYOD is often negative. IT hates the nightmare of supporting apps for multi-platform use. More importantly, employers worry about securing proprietary information on the employees’ personal devices, which is by far the number one objection to BYOD.

A pretty good example of this is the military. When soldiers started bringing their own devices into theater (even into combat), the military was initially appalled.  How could they possibly keep information secure on consumer devices?

While the security issue is still not resolved, the military is actively exploring BYOD.  For one thing, they see it as a way of leveraging the leading edge of consumer technology.

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Work better by checking your personal email

Probably the single biggest benefit of BYOD is increased employee productivity.  Given the flexibility of choosing their own device, applications, and service plans, workers have been extremely innovative in increasing their efficiency. Another reason for increased productivity is that employees are more likely to work on business activities during their personal time if they can do so on their own devices. Counter-intuitively, according to an exhaustive international study by Cisco, performing personal tasks during business hours also increases employee productivity. Think about that the next time the boss yells at you for playing Clash of Clans.

BYOD = Mobility

It is no coincidence that BYOD emerged as smartphones and tablets conquered the world. Smartphones is the overwhelming device of choice for BYOD with tablets rapidly gaining ground.

Some enterprises have seen BYOD as an efficient way to “go mobile.” No longer anchored to the office, employees can work from home or on the road. Switching work activities from desktop to smartphones is also considered beneficial, because “smartphones are the wave of the future,” i.e. all the cool kids are doing it.

Indeed, mobile phone use is so closely tied to BYOD that their benefits have become blurred. People touting BYOD talk about the wonderfulness of networking employees as well as the importance of sharing and distributing information. When the negatives are discussed, increased use of corporate Wi-Fi is sometimes mentioned, a phenomena that would happen with business-issued smartphones as well.

Your mileage may vary

By any standard, BYOD has been successful. According to Cisco’s study, “….69 percent of IT decision makers (up to 88 percent in some countries) feel that BYOD is a positive development for their organization.”

You may read BYOD enthusiasts citing costs benefits of BYOD. Cisco’s report states that companies can save up to “$1,650 per mobile employee.” The problem with these claims is that benefits are far from uniform.

For one thing, local culture plays a big factor. I wasn’t surprise to learn, for example, that workers using BYOD in Germany had negligible productivity gains. This is just anecdotal evidence, but an inventive acquaintance of mine went nuts working in Germany. He performed every task efficiently, under budget, and before deadline, but his employers hated him.  In the US, employers tell workers to perform task X and will often let them decide how to do it. In fact, they will encourage them to come up with new ideas. In Germany, my friend was told to “perform task X by completing the following steps…” Despite the fact that he successfully did his job, his original approach upset his superiors.  If you live in a culture (or work in a company) that doesn’t value employee innovation, you are unlikely to benefit from BYOD.

Everybody is a winner! (Except for those who lose)

Some supporters will spout various numerous financial benefits of BYOD (“20 to 30% savings!”) without mentioning that these high numbers apply only to the small minority of companies that employ “comprehensive BYOD.” “Comprehensive BYOD” is a term used by Cisco to describe systematic preparation for enterprise-wide integration of BYOD. Unfortunately, it is far more common for enterprises to have a poorly thought-out ad hoc approach for BYOD adoption. See insert below for Cisco’s list of “comprehensive BYOD” capabilities.

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Some of the items in the above list illustrate a serious drawback to BYOD. If an enterprise adopts the “comprehensive BYOD” approach, employees may object to the loss of privacy. It is one thing to have monitoring software on a company desktop, but it is another to concede even partial control of your personal smartphone to an employer.

In conversation on a social website, a BYOD supporter claimed that some of these problems can be avoided through cloud applications. Say you’re a company with a highly prized list of clients. Your salesmen want access to this list on their personal smartphones.  Fine you say, as long as you can remote wipe the data on their phones. After all, you don’t want them quitting and taking the list to a competitor.

However, your salesmen are uncomfortable with their employer having any kind of control whatsoever over their personal devices. A solution is posting the list on the cloud (many Customer Relationship Management apps are cloud-based anyway). This solution doesn’t completely eliminate the problem of “data walking out the door,” but it does allow salesman to access to sensitive information, without feeling that their boss is snooping around their phone.

Look before you BYOD

Before adopting BYOD, you need to examine your specific situation. If you operate in a medical environment, how will you address the rather-strict rules on patient privacy? If you want your students to use their own devices for homework, what precautions do you need to curtail cheating? The benefits of BYOD are real, but as with any innovation, you should think carefully before adopting.


Bomb Suit Runs [VIDEOS]

While Unmanned Ground Vehicles have saved countless lives, the “bomb suit” is still a fact of life for Explosive Ordinance Detonation (EOD) personnel.  Somehow, running a mile, and even 5K, in these 80-pound suffocating suits have become charity events.

Why do they do these runs? The world female record holder says it’s part of their training, but EOD people are trained not to run in areas with explosives. I suspect the real reason for these runs is that nobody decides to specialize in detonating explosives, because they like doing sane things.

Group 5K run

Male Record Holder

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Female Record Holder

Animals Attack UAVs [VIDEOS}

For unmanned systems, the air is a relatively simpler environment than the ground. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), unlike their earth-bound counterparts, do not have to navigate culverts, bridges, people, cars, and other obstacles. The FAA’s anxieties have mostly focused on concerns about privacy and airplane collisions. There is one other problem that we should be worried about: animals. In the battle of rams, hawks, and kangaroos vs. UAVs, the UAVs do not always win.

Hawk vs. Quadcopter

Read about it here.

Bird vs. RC plane

Amazing photography!  Bird is a raptor of some kind.

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Ram vs. Quadcopter

Be sure to watch the last part of the video as the ram attacks the operator when he tries to recover his downed quadcopter.

Kangaroo vs. UAV

Somewhere there is a bureaucrat tasked with regulating UAVs, shaking his head, saying, “You mean we have to also worry about freaking kangaroos!”  Read about kangaroo attack here.

The Great Mysterious Landpower Robot Revolution  

Everyone knows that unmanned systems will change everything for land forces.  However, no one is sure what those changes will be.

“It is, of course, impossible to predict exactly how the Landpower robot revolution will unfold.”

The above quote was written by Dr. Steven Metz, the Director of Research at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) as well as research director for the Joint Strategic Landpower Task Force.  While the future is unknown, Dr. Metz argues that it is possible to identify the questions that need to be answered, at least some of them.  Writing on SSI’s websites, his questions include:

  • What is the appropriate mix of humans and robots?
  • How autonomous should the robots be?
  • What type of people will be needed for robot heavy Landpower formations?
  • What effect will robot centric Landpower have on American national security policy?
  • What to do about enemy robots?

Dr. Metz’s article is worth reading in its entirety (view it here). Below are a few highlights as well as some reactions.

Logistics and expense

Dr. Metz quotes Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security:

“Uninhabited systems can help bring mass back to the fight by augmenting human-inhabited combat systems with large numbers of lower cost uninhabited systems to expand the number of sensors and shooters in the fight. Because they can take more risk without a human onboard, uninhabited systems can balance survivability against cost, affording the ability to procure larger numbers of systems.”

Unmanned systems have always been seen as economical force multipliers. However, Metz’s and Scharre’s comments imply other benefits as well.

A central weakness of an army is its need for support. Even Israel’s relatively small military, which usually has short logistics lines, is vulnerable. In the run-up to the 1973 war, Egypt quickly mobilized and demobilized its forces over and over. Israel responded with its own mobilization and demobilization of its civilian-based military forces, but this played havoc with its economy.  After a while, they decided that Egypt was just playing games with them; that’s when Egypt attacked.

If the military forces had been unmanned systems, Egypt’s strategy may not have been as effective.  The costs of maintaining a large unmanned force in readiness may be less than mobilizing a large manned one.

Current events validate this way of thinking. The current administration is reducing manpower overseas, while relying more and more on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). Although most people focus on the reduced risk to American lives, it is also clear that it is cheaper to send UAVs to Waziristan than maintain forward placed personnel.

A counterpoint is that robots may not be as cheap as people think they are. Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London wrote:

“The other element of the UAV side in the ISR arena is that people look at a UAV and think, unmanned, surely it won’t cost as much. The UAV actually just shifts to some extent, where the cost comes, in terms of the number of support people, pilots required actually to fly the air vehicle from a ground station, and then the imagery exploitation and analysis teams who run to serious numbers of personnel, obviously deriving great value, in military terms, from these things. But the, kind of, initial notion that these things were going to be cheap doesn’t actually turn out to be necessarily correct.”  (Non-traditional Airborne ISR Makes the Leap from Unconventional to Conventional Warfare – Defense IQ)

We have already seen the reluctance of the military to commit expensive systems to actual combat (some sophisticated fighter jets are rarely used). Are robots ever going to be so cheap that they are essentially expendable?

Rob Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development, DoD Programs sees problems.

“I have firsthand reports from soldiers and officers who have put high tech but good equipment back in the box, and chosen not to use it in operations. The one time they did use a piece of equipment, it was damaged beyond repair by errant enemy mortar fire. Subsequent investigation and paper work was so intrusive and demanding as to create a pain level that ensured the equipment would never be used again. Somewhere the worldview disconnect between operators and widget counters needs to be overcome.”

You do not need a body to be an antibody

Dr. Metz makes an interesting assertion that robots don’t become an ‘“antibody’ in a foreign culture.” This is another way of saying that no one screams “Hide the women! The robots are coming!” Robots do not loot, rape or violate local customs by refusing to take off their shoes in holy places. The author goes as far to call unmanned systems “politically palatable,” and could be useful in certain stages of counter-insurgency efforts.

This may be one of those ideas that make sense, but just isn’t true. Whether you are talking about Yemen, Gaza, or Afghanistan, locals hate and dread unmanned systems. There is a fairly vociferous “anti-drone” movement happening on a global scale. Right now, people are scared of “death from the skies,” but I suspect these negative attitudes could be projected onto Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) as well. Would you like an autonomous lethal killing machine running around in your neighborhood?

Robert Culver thinks that unmanned systems may actually be more culturally problematic than human soldiers. He writes:

“I do believe that there can be and is cultural rejection of ground robots.   As a hetman of my tribe I would be offended if you sent a machine instead of a man.”

What is the appropriate mix of humans and robots?

Dr. Metz discusses this question at length and considers it one of the great imponderables. Unlike the author, I do not consider the mix of humans and robots to be all that mysterious.

Is it really that difficult to decide who and when gets an ISR-oriented tactical UAV or an IED-sniffing UGV? These are more tactical questions than strategic, and the answers should present themselves as time goes on.

Unmanned systems = more war

Dr. Metz speculates that the increased use of unmanned systems will make leaders less hesitant about committing to combat. I have always been skeptical of the “Robots makes it easier to go to war” argument. As noted above, the military has shown reluctance to use some of its best technology due to its expense as well as the risk of enemies capturing and reverse-engineering advance devices. This may be regarded as an updated version of “McClellan-ism,” i.e., “I sure would hate for something bad to happen to my pretty, well-trained soldiers.”

However, I have to admit the evidence seems to support this fear. The President gets a lot of flak for being “weak,” but if you include UAV-strikes, he may have more kinetic actions going on in more countries than any other administration since WW II. He is killing a lot of people in a lot of places for someone who is supposed to be a wimp.

Where’s the revolution?

Rather than make predictions based on an agenda, Dr. Metz’s article stresses how little we know about the future effects of unmanned systems. For example, no one knows where the most influential innovations will come from.

 “Even though it is clear that a revolution will happen, it is hard to tell where it will take place. Will it be the Army’s existing network for innovation, including the schools in the professional military educational system, the battle labs, and the various ‘centers of excellence’? Will it be in the offices of mavericks outside the formal system of innovation? Will it be in cutting edge corporations? Or will it be led by America’s enemies, with the U.S. military reacting as it falls behind?”

Dr. Metz’s above quote is consistent with the overall perception that here is a lack of leadership and vision within the Defense community concerning unmanned systems. For our unmanned system developers and vendors, this may be the most important question of all.  It’s hard to build for a future that hasn’t been defined yet.

Timing is everything

Rob Culver sees the lack of vision for unmanned technology as a function of its development and the needs of the military.

“An idea can be good or bad or even great, depending upon timing. A good idea that’s too early can be viewed as down-right stupid. But a good idea when the technology is mature enough and the need is urgent is brilliant.

“I think unmanned systems and particularly unmanned ground systems are still, believe it or not, premature. Autonomy, the associated technology and other capabilities are not mature enough. Furthermore, the need (other than for counter-IED and route clearance) is not painful enough to truly generate ‘urgent’ needs statements.

“I do believe the future of warfare will include manned/unmanned teaming as we are already beginning to see with aerial platforms. But we control the environment in air space. The same reason that FAA is not quick to clear unmanned/remotely piloted aircraft in national airspace also applies to ground operations during conflict.

“Land forces operate in a different environment than air. There are no ditches, culverts, tunnels and multi-story buildings in the flying drones’ airspace as there will be on the ground. Too many people running around and no easy way to differentiate combatant from non-combatant.

“We have had endless conversations, but no ready answer. A lot of people experimented with heavier than air flight for literally decades, if not centuries before Wilbur and Orville invented ‘flight.’”

Unknown ≠ inaction

According to Culver’s analysis, as technology advances and needs become pressing, the requirements for unmanned systems will become clear.

However, I do not think this need to be a call for passivity. Indeed, the Army may not know it wants a specific solution until it is presented to them.

Vendors can and should take steps to create the future of unmanned systems, including:

  • Developing capabilities that will likely be needed, such as “sliding autonomy” and navigation.
  • Partnering to create “best-of-breed” solutions. This may even require cooperating with our competitors on occasion.
  • Interoperability, interoperability, interoperability. Not just on common control, but on more mundane elements, such as batteries and spare parts.
  • Economy will always matter. In a crisis, the military will throw money at a problem, but the vendor with the cheapest solution that matches urgent needs will have an enormous advantage.

Finally, as an industry we need to step up. We can sit around complaining about the government’s lack of vision for the future, but it is to our advantage that we collectively create that future.

To learn more about the likely future of Unmanned Ground Vehicles,

Contact Rob Culver at (603) 325-3376 or robertc@amrel.com