The Complex

The Army wants drone backhoes and MRAPs

And you thought this week's news about the Navy's fancy stealth drone was good. Not to be outdone by the sea service, the Army this week revealed that it's looking to develop autonomous robo-backhoes and robot versions the military's famous armored trucks, known as MRAPs.

That's right, the Army wants to have robot trucks prowling battlefields for hidden explosives, finding and disabling or destroying the devices before they can harm people, according to this May 3 request for information that was spotted by a flying Blackberry with a drinking problem.

I have to say, this mission fits many people's job description for drones perfectly: dirty, dull and dangerous. If ever there was a dirty, dull and dangerous job for a drone, it's driving slowly down war-torn roads or paths while hunting for something buried in dirt or debris that could blow a person to smithereens.

So, the Army is interested in talking to contractors who can come up with kits allowing them to convert some of its High Mobility Engineer Excavators (backhoes on steroids, they're armored and can drive way faster than their civilian counterparts) and RG-31 MRAPs into remote-controlled bomb finders -- officially dubbed the Route Clearance and Interrogation System (RCIS).

Click here to see why they want these things to be unmanned.

Specifically, the kits must allow the vehicles to be operated by a soldier in another vehicle or for them to automatically follow a "pathfinder" vehicle or be programmed to drive along a preplanned route using GPS coordinates. However, the trucks must maintain their ability to be driven by a human the old fashioned way.

The Army envisions the trucks operating in nearly every environment, from urban rubble to open desert. The RCIS "will operate in terrain varying from open rolling to complex terrain; in confined areas; with mobility on primary and secondary roads and trails, and during limited cross-country movements," reads the RfI. "Operations will take place during daylight and during night, in limited visibility, and in inclement weather."

The two vehicles that comprise the RCIS system will have tools that allow for slightly different, complimentary missions. The backhoe will allow troops to remotely dig up, identify, and "neutralize" deeply buried explosives "in confined/urban areas" and prevent enemies from planting bombs in routes that have already been cleared by U.S. troops, according to the document.

The robo-MRAP will allow the troops to find and "neutralize" bombs with equipment such as "an explosive hazard roller, debris blower, electronic countermeasures device, infrared neutralizing device [to disable laser tripwires], and trip/command wire detonating device."

The trucks will be equipped with a variety of cameras and diagnostic systems allowing the operator to monitor its progress, the world around the vehicle and its health as if he or she were sitting behind the wheel, according to the RfI. Still, the beasts should be able to automatically recognize and warn the operator to the presence of any vehicle the size of a "Toyota Tacoma" pickup truck or larger and any people "standing upright wearing an Army Combat Uniform" who happen to be in front of or around the vehicles. (I guess you're out of luck if you're stranded in a Mini Cooper that's in the path of one of these things.)

These are hardly the U.S. military's first ground-based drones. The military has fielded thousands of small bomb-disposal robots, and the Army has tested a six-wheeled robot-jeep that serves as a pack mule in Afghanistan.

That's nothing compared to Israel, which has wholeheartedly embraced ground robots to conduct dull, dirty, and dangerous missions for at least a decade. The Israel Defense Force has used robot bulldozers since late 2003 to "knock down buildings, flatten olive groves and clear paths for advancing soldiers," according to this BBC News article. Then there's what might be the world's first killer ground robot, the IDF's Guardium.

U.S. Army

National Security

It's not just China, India is also buying and building aircraft carriers

As China commissioned its first-ever aircraft carrier aviation unit, Asia's other rising power, India, gave its carrier aviators a serious equipment upgrade with the introduction of 16 brand-new Russian-made MiG-29K and four MiG-29KUB carrier-borne fighters earlier this week.

India has operated old British aircraft carriers for decades. Right now it flies aging Sea Harrier jump jets from INS Viraat, formerly the Royal Navy carrier Hermes. These Sea Harriers are subsonic attack planes with limited payloads operating from a carrier that was built in the 1950s.

The supersonic MiG-29K is an updated, naval version of the Soviet Union's 1980s-vintage MiG-29, which was designed to counter U.S. Air Force F-15s and F-16s in the skies over Europe should the Cold War ever turn hot. The planes are way faster than the 1980s-vintage Sea Harriers and can carry more weapons capable of shooting down enemy planes and hitting enemy ships.

The Indian navy's new MiGs are going to be flown off of India's newest carrier, the former Soviet navy "aircraft-carrying cruiser" Admiral Gorshkov. That vessel has been massively refurbished at a Russian shipyard into the soon-to-be delivered INS Vikramaditya, a full-on carrier that, after much work, looks remarkably similar to China's first carrier, the Liaoning -- herself an old Soviet carrier. (Vikramaditya is supposed to be delivered to the Indian navy sometime this year.)

(China is also reportedly building at least two aircraft carriers of its own, set to enter service in the next decade.)

India will get a second squadron's worth of MiG-29Ks to fly off its first locally made carrier, the INS Vikrant, which is slated for delivery in 2015. (Click here to see great images of her under construction and get a primer on the delays that have troubled India's carrier program.)  

So yeah, China isn't the only Asian nation that's building up its carrier force.

And keep in mind that India has one distinct advantage over China when it comes to carrier operations: it has been operating fighter jets from aircraft carriers for more than 50 years. It can take decades to master the art of flying fast jets off of the relatively tiny, floating airfields. Still MiG-29s are much bigger airplanes than the Sea Harriers and they can't just land vertically on a flight deck, as a Harrier can. This means that Indian navy pilots will have to relearn one of the toughest skills in aviation; landing on a pitching, rolling flight-deck and snagging an arrestor cable to come to a stop in a couple of hundred feet.

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