Teleoperated weapons will likely proliferate widely
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The Syrian civil war is producing a multitude of remotely-operated, custom-made killing machines — sniper rifles and machine guns which a shooter can trigger remotely with the push of a button.
Remotely-operated guns are common in militaries around the world. The United States has thousands of them mounted on tanks and other armored vehicles. The U.S. Marine Corps is testing a smaller machine-gun robot called MAARS, and other gun-bots have appeared in South Korea, Israel and Russia.
But their adoption by rebel groups is an innovation arising from an intermingling of war, cheap personal computers and cameras. The devices typically use cables to hook up the guns to control stations. Aside from the gun, a complete setup only costs a few hundred bucks worth of off-the-shelf components and some technical skills.
After that, it’s just a matter of swiveling the now-teleoperated gun with a joystick, gamepad or a keyboard and triggering the firing mechanism.
It’s a highly effective means of denying an area to the enemy while covering one’s self from fire.
See, it’s suicide in warfare to not suppress your foe’s machine guns before maneuvering. Since a teleoperated gun cannot easily be suppressed, an attacking force’s job becomes all the more difficult.
While the weapons are hardly new to the Syrian battlefield, an August report published by the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office listed 20 distinct teleoperated weapons spotted in Iraq and Syria which can be traced to specific armed factions.
The authors, Robert Bunker and Alma Keshavarz, left out weapons seen in videos and photographs but for which their users could not be identified.
Bunker and Keshavarz make several interesting observations. The early and most prolific adopters have been the Free Syrian Army operating in and around the city of Aleppo, but the weapons have also spread to Shia militias and Kurdish fighters in Iraq, and jihadist rebel groups including the Islamic State.
“It is evident by these cases — and others not listed — that terrorists and insurgents are increasingly turning to teleoperated weaponry to support and augment their forces in battle,” the authors wrote. “This is especially the case in the Aleppo region of Syria that has become an ‘incubator of experimentation’ with regard to these systems.”
The consequences extend beyond the battlefield, as it’s usually only a matter of time before weapons of war filter back to the civilian world.
We saw a lethal demonstration of this phenomenon in July when Dallas police sent a bomb-disposal robot rigged with explosives to kill cop killer Micah Johnson.
The ad-hoc engineering behind weaponized robots is on full display in Syria. Bunker and Keshavarz note that the FSA in Aleppo deployed a mounted, FAL rifle with a camera while the “shooter” sat in a plastic chair a few feet away with a laptop displaying the gun’s sight picture.
Quality — and accuracy — may vary. A teleoperated PK-style machine gun operated by the FSA in Aleppo in 2013 had no scope. Mobile versions, including two tracked FSA machine guns, and a mobile device built by the Al-Qaeda linked Al Sunna Knights, are laughably crude.
Some of the weapons look like they may topple over at any moment.
And the types of weapons are as diverse as the firearms seen in the conflict. The Kurdish peshmerga created a teleoperated MG3—a German machine gun which traces its origins back to the 1940s. FSA rebels in Aleppo in September 2013 even converted a World War II-era German StG-44 into a remotely-triggered sniper rifle.
Some examples appear to be highly accurate because they’re welded to steel platforms, making them highly stable — with maneuverability provided by servomotors.
“In many cases, if not all, they are using expert technicians and engineers to fashion robotics that will function as remote controlled weapons,” Bunker and Keshavarz write.
“It is troublesome to wonder how well they would do if they had better materials — potentially making something that could actually match the weaponry developed in the United States.”
But it’s hard to see insurgents matching the scale by which states can deploy teleoperated guns. The weapons in Syria and Iraq are custom made, not mass produced. And armies have a lot more money to spend on research and development.
Still, that insurgents are nonetheless crafting their own versions is something the U.S. military should worry about as an emerging matter of fact in modern warfare.
“As the conflict escalates,” the authors wrote, “the likelihood of more of these types of weapons being employed is highly probable.”