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Executive Summary: THE POTENTIAL OF UNMANNED GROUND VEHICLES

Updated: Mar 30

Annabelle Hueber, Megan Proudfoot, Weapons and Tactics (W/T) Team

Week of Monday, November 29, 2021


Unmanned Ground Vehicle[1]


Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are machines incorporating technology areas such as perception, planning, navigation, behaviors, skills, and adaptation,[2] and they play a critical role in enhancing the performance, efficiency, and safety of military missions.[3] The expansion of the UGV market will likely lead to a variety of vulnerabilities including technological limitations and a lack of human agency. It will also very likely result in more casualties due to system and human errors and lead to a larger variety of weapons integrated on these devices. Militaries deploy combat UGVs that are limited to military use and equipped with weaponry for missions too dangerous and impractical for humans; however, terrorists will likely also use these vehicles to carry out attacks to fulfill their ideology.[4]


Al-Qaeda, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army, Fatah, Hezbollah, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Hamas have used or attempted to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the time of this report.[5] The UAVs are likely used for surveillance, reconnaissance, improvised explosive device (IED) delivery, and as a weapons platform. As UGVs are similar to UAVs, terrorist organizations will almost certainly utilize combat UGVs for similar tasks and to fulfill strategic goals; terrorists will very likely use UGVs for IED delivery, allowing them to carry out attacks without losing fighters. While combat UGVs are currently limited to the military sector, terrorist organizations will likely obtain similar non-combat technology from the public sector and adjust it for combat. As self-driving cars become more common and accessible, terrorist organizations will very likely use this technology to carry out attacks, as a self-driving car carrying an IED would almost certainly be an effective weapon.


Terrorist organizations’ recruitment strategies are evolving to attract new recruits.[6] Since terrorists’ use of UGVs likely allows members to conduct attacks without dying, there will likely be an increase in recruitment. Recruitment will also likely increase if the implementation of combat UGVs results in higher mission success rates. It is almost certainly more difficult to stop an unmanned vehicle, as drivers in traditional vehicles can be killed. Additionally, with almost no chance of human error or hesitation in self-driving cars, missions will very likely succeed. However, if terrorist organizations are utilizing remote-controlled UGVs, human mistakes will likely still occur, leading to a roughly even chance of compromising missions. Whether terrorist organizations utilize military-grade UGVs or civilian self-driving cars, they will likely recruit more people, succeed in more missions, and further their long-term strategic plans.


Collateral damage or issues from UGVs are viewed as the responsibility of the specific military commandment, the personnel, or the industrial manufacturer, and therefore these groups should be held accountable.[7] Combat UGV technological advances will likely allow a wider variety of weapons such as bombs, chemical weapons, and biological weapons to be integrated into such vehicles. This will almost certainly increase the types of attacks these groups can conduct, and the new technology’s flexibility will very likely allow terrorists to effectively conduct more precise attacks against both individual targets and crowds. These weapons will very likely have the ability to cause mass casualties and disrupt society with an attack. The increasing popularity of UGVs means the UGV market will almost certainly expand, likely resulting in unqualified companies creating vehicles with issues, including technological shortcomings, human operating errors, and the potential of risk system failures. Military groups will very likely avoid taking responsibility for a manufacturing defect, likely leading to disputes over accountability when a UGV malfunctions.

The removal of human agency will likely negatively affect the recognition of enemies since they often pose as civilians and are therefore difficult to detect.[8] Human instinct and emotional contributions are important aspects of warfare and cannot be learned by machinery. UGVs replacing human soldiers will very likely lead to combat missions lacking morality since the aspect of humanity cannot be reproduced in manufactured devices. Relying on technology to make life or death decisions will very likely put innocent human lives at risk and will likely wrongfully target and injure innocent individuals.


To prevent terrorists from using combat UGVs, the technology should remain limited to the military. This will likely prevent terrorists from obtaining military-grade technology they could use to further their aims. However, it will likely be difficult to prevent terrorists from obtaining similar unrestricted technology, such as self-driving cars. Therefore, all purchases of similar technology should be monitored to prevent potential misuse. An intensive approach would be similar to existing regulations on the purchase of firearms for some countries, where a permit is required to buy the technology. To obtain a permit, the purchaser would have to pass a background check and not be on any watch lists. This would likely help prevent terrorists from obtaining the technology. However, it would be up to each country to implement such regulations and monitor purchases. The Counterterrorism Group recommends UGVs remain a human-in-the-loop system due to moral and technological limitations that are likely to cause severe casualties. The Weapon and Tactics (W/T) Team will continue monitoring the uses and implications of UGVs. Threat Hunters and the Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers will continue to track related news and events.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Unmanned Ground Vehicle” by Israel Defense Forces licensed under Creative Commons

[2] “Autonomous Behavior Technologies,” The National Academies Press, 2002, https://www.nap.edu/read/10592/chapter/6

[3] The Role of Autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle Technologies in Defense Applications, Aerospace and Defense, October 2020, https://www.aerodefensetech.com/component/content/article/adt/features/articles/37888

[4] The Role of Autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle Technologies in Defense Applications, Aerospace and Defense, October 2020, https://www.aerodefensetech.com/component/content/article/adt/features/articles/37888

[5] “Terrorist and Insurgent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Use, Potentials, and Military Implications,” United States Army War College, 2015, https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1050&context=cgu_facbooks

[6] An Analysis of Onlne Terrorist Recruiting and Propaganda Strategies, E-International Relations, June 2017, https://www.e-ir.info/2017/07/19/an-analysis-of-online-terrorist-recruiting-and-propaganda-strategies/

[7] Unmanned Ground Forces: The Emergence of a New Industry in Europe and its Future Implications, Finabel, December 2020, https://finabel.org/unmanned-ground-forces-the-emergence-of-a-new-industry-in-europe-and-its-future-implications/

[8] Ibid

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