London: The US army is considering replacing thousands of soldiers with robots as it adjusts to sweeping troop cuts.
A senior American general has said he is considering reducing the size of the army's brigade combat teams by a quarter and replacing some of the lost troops with robots and remote-controlled vehicles. Ideas under discussion include proposals for manned lorries and transporters to be replaced by supply trains of robot vehicles.
Generals are studying proposals as the US army is to slim down from 540,000 to about 490,000 soldiers by the end of next year. Some reports suggest it could dip below 450,000 by the end of the decade.
General Robert Cone, head of the army's training and doctrine command, is considering cutting standard brigade combat teams from about 4000 soldiers to 3000, according to Defence News, a US military magazine. He told a seminar: "I've got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of manoeuvrability, in terms of the future of the force."
Options under discussion, he said, included trains of robot vehicles that would follow vehicles with human drivers in long supply convoys.
He said the army should also follow the lead of the navy in using technology to cut manpower. "When you see the success, frankly, that the navy has had in terms of lowering the numbers of people on ships, are there functions in the brigade that we could automate - robots or manned/unmanned teaming - and lower the number of people that are involved, given the fact that people are our major cost?"
However, there are no immediate plans for robots to be deployed with lethal firepower. Huw Williams, an expert on military robots and unmanned vehicles at the defence publication IHS Jane's, said armies were focusing on investigating robot vehicles for transport.
He said: "If you have a lead manned vehicle, you could have several unmanned vehicles following behind, or a train solely of unmanned vehicles."
Several robot ground vehicles have already been tested in Afghanistan, including the Squad Mission Support System, a six-wheeled robotic buggy to carry soldiers' kit. Last year the British Army announced the purchase of dozens of remotely controlled robotic diggers.
America has waged an aggressive drone campaign targeting insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan.
Campaigners claim that the campaign has killed hundreds of civilians. Britain already has hundreds of remotely piloted drone aircraft ranging from tiny surveillance helicopters to large Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles.
The rise of the new technologies has provoked fears of future battlefields one day stalked by unaccountable robotic killing machines, and in 2012, Human Rights Watch called for a pre-emptive ban on killer robots "before it's too late".
General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander who oversaw Nato forces in Afghanistan, warned on Tuesday that America's drone programme created "a tremendous amount of resentment".
He told the BBC's Today program: "There's a danger that something that feels easy to do and without risk to yourself, almost antiseptic to the person shooting, doesn't feel that way at the point of impact. If it lowers the threshold for taking operations because it feels easy, there's danger in that."