The wave of automation that swept away tens of thousands of American manufacturing and office jobs during the past two decades is now washing over the armed forces, putting both rear-echelon and front-line positions in jeopardy.
“Just as in the civilian economy, automation will likely have a big impact on military organizations in logistics and manufacturing,” said Michael Horowitz, a University of Pennsylvania professor and one of the globe’s foremost experts on weaponized robots.
“The U.S. military is very likely to pursue forms of automation that reduce ‘back-office’ costs over time, as well as remove soldiers from non-combat deployments where they might face risk from adversaries on fluid battlefields, such as in transportation.”
Driver-less vehicles poised to take taxi, train and truck driver jobs in the civilian sector also could nab many combat-support slots in the Army.
Warehouse robots that scoot goods to delivery vans could run the same chores inside Air Force ordnance and supply units.
New machines that can scan, collate and analyze hundreds of thousands of pages of legal documents in a day might outperform Navy legal researchers.
Nurses, physicians and corpsmen could face competition from computers designed to diagnose diseases and assist in the operating room.
Frogmen might no longer need to rip out sea mines by hand – robots could do that for them.
“Robots will continue to replace the dirty, dull and dangerous jobs, and this will affect typically more uneducated and unskilled workers,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the Institute for Contextual Robotics at the University of California, San Diego. “You need to look at the mundane things. Logistics tasks will not be solved by people driving around in trucks. Instead, you will have fewer drivers. The lead driver in a convoy might be human, but every truck following behind will not be. The jobs that are the most boring will be the ones that get replaced because they’re the easiest to automate.”
As for warships, Horowitz said because of economic and personnel reasons, they’re increasingly designed to “reduce the number of sailors required for operations.”
The highly automated guided-missile destroyer Zumwalt that arrived in San Diego in December carries 147 sailors — half the crew that runs similar warships — and deploys up to three drone MQ-8 Fire Scout helicopters to find targets, map terrain and sniff out bad weather.
The Office of Naval Research and the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office continue to experiment with what futurists call a “ghost fleet” of unmanned but networked surface and underwater boats — and their flying drone cousins overhead.
Tomorrow’s sailors could begin to encounter what scores of bookkeepers, cashiers, telephone operators and automotive assembly line workers already faced in the past two decades as increasingly fast and cheap software and automated machinery replaced some of their tasks in factories and offices.
And that trend isn’t diminishing. Advances in artificial intelligence, software and robotics threaten nearly half of all American civilian jobs during the next several decades, according to a 2013 analysis by Oxford University.
While such cuts might hit low-wage manual laborers the hardest, the cheap cost of high-speed computing also will slash many “high-income cognitive jobs” while triggering the “hollowing-out of middle-income routine jobs,” the study concluded.
In the United States, the push to automate blue-collar trades accelerated after the 2009 global financial crisis. American factories installed 27,500 units in 2015, triple the number six years earlier, according to the International Federation of Robotics.
They also bought 60,000 robots between 2010 and 2015, second only to China’s nearly 90,000 units.
“Rapid diffusion of technological advances could have something of a leveling effect at some level, since many actors, both states and non-state actors, could have access to cutting edge commercial (artificial intelligence) and robotics,” Horowitz said.
Automobile manufacturers paced robot purchases in the United States.
There’s now more than one robot for every 10 human jobs in the automotive sector, but that doesn’t always mean the end of employing people. Jobs at the big auto factories and parts makers rose 14 percent in the past year, according to the January report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“It’s more complicated than people realize,” said UC San Diego’s Christensen. “You will need more people to maintain the new technology and the new technology displaces people so that they can do other things. There are more bank tellers today than there were 30 years ago. There are more administrative assistants than there were 30 years ago. They don’t work in typing pools. They do other things.”
That’s the thinking at Massachusetts-based Endeavor Robotics, too. A spin-off of iRobot — maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner — Endeavor manufacturers top-end robots that nimbly spin and scoot on mini-tank treads.
Some machines are so small that they can fit inside a backpack. The military uses them to clear roadside bombs or booby-trapped bunkers, keeping Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams as far away from lethal explosives as possible.
“We don’t look at one of our machines replacing a person,” said Joseph Smith, an Endeavor rep who attended the Marine West 2017 trade expo at Camp Pendleton last month. “There’s always a person in the loop. The robot is just an extension of the human hand and the human brain.”
Endeavor’s front-line robots aren’t that different from the automation arriving in rear-echelon units like North Island Naval Air Station’s Fleet Readiness Center Southwest.
At the center, Inovati KM-PCS, a $500,000 robot that looks like a cake mixer mated with a dental drill, hasn’t missed a day of work in over a year and has saved taxpayers at least $6.7 million by fixing aircraft parts that used to get junked.
Made in Santa Barbara, the robot toils in the depot’s Cold Spray Systems room, stripping corrosion off of expensive fighter-jet components before jetting a “moon dust” of metal particles into the dents and fissures.
“This looks very attractive,” said William Taylor, the Marine Corps’ assistant deputy commandant for aviation, as he eyed the robot recently. “There’s the ability to save money, to avoid cost, to allow us to get stock back into shelves and to avoid scrapping parts and salvaging them through repair.”
Nearby, depot engineer Conrad Macy held up a pitted and scoured aluminum mounted accessory drive housing hydraulic pads for the F-18 E/F Super Hornet strike fighter. The gizmo retails for about $160,000 when it’s new, but the robot fixed it in minutes for pennies.
“Before this technology, you’d just throw the housing away,” Macy said.
In the past, even when workers found parts they thought they could salvage, the needed fixes were labor-intensive and failed between 20 percent and 40 percent of the time, said depot chemical engineer Matthew Minnick.
He pointed to one complicated gadget a worker once had to spend two days masking with special tape before it underwent a flame spray treatment that took hours to cool before anyone could touch it. After Inovati began fixing such parts, human employees could pop them out with their bare hands.
“And the rejection (failure) rate for parts is zero — 150 parts with no rejections,” Minnick said.