Let Slip the Robot Dogs of War

The United States and China appear locked in a race to weaponize four-legged robots for military applications.
U.S. Air Force soldier kneels next to a robotic dog in front of a military plane
A Ghost Robotics Vision 60 prototype at an Advanced Battle Management System exercise on Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, September 2020.Photograph: Tech. Sgt. Cory D. Payne/U.S. Air Force/DVIDS

The Chinese military recently unveiled a new kind of battle buddy for its soldiers: a “robot dog” with a machine gun strapped to its back.

In video distributed by the state-run news agency CCTV, People's Liberation Army personnel are shown operating on a testing range alongside a four-legged robot with what appears to be a variant of the standard-issue 5.8 x 42-mm QBZ-95 assault rifle mounted on it as part of China’s recent Golden Dragon 24 joint military exercises with Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand. In one scenario, Chinese soldiers stand on either side of a doorway while the robot dog enters the building ahead of them; in another, the robot fires off a burst of bullets as it advances on a target.

“It can serve as a new member in our urban combat operations, replacing our members to conduct reconnaissance and identify enemy [sic] and strike the target during our training,” one Chinese soldier shown operating the robot told CCTV.

This isn’t the first time the Chinese military-industrial complex has shown off an armed robot dog. In October 2022, Chinese defense company Kestrel Defense published a video showing an unmanned aerial vehicle air-dropping a quadrupedal ground vehicle affixed with a 5.8 x 42-mm QBB-97 light machine gun on a roof during an urban warfare experiment. The company had previously released footage of robot dogs outfitted with combat systems that included everything from smoke grenades to loitering munitions. And as recently as this March, Chinese researchers claimed that tests involving robot dogs outfitted with an unidentified 7.62-mm rifle (likely a variant of the Type 56 assault rifle that’s based on the ubiquitous Soviet-made AK-47) yielded marksmanship that rivaled trained Chinese sharpshooters, according to the South China Morning Post.

China’s demonstration clearly rankled international observers, prompting at least one American lawmaker to call on the US Defense Department for a report on “rifle-toting robot dogs” and their potential national security implications. But if the Chinese military is pioneering the weaponization of robot dogs, then the United States military isn’t far behind.

In the past year, the Pentagon has experimented with outfitting quadrupedal ground robots with its standard-issue 5.56 x 45-mm M4A1 carbine, the 6.8-mm XM7 rifle that the US Army is in the process of adopting under its Next Generation Squad Weapon program, and even the M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon that’s been in service with American troops since the Vietnam War. Just weeks before CCTV published its footage of armed robot dogs in action, Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) revealed that it was experimenting with adding mounted gun systems based on defense contractor Onyx’s artificial intelligence-enabled SENTRY remote weapons system to its own mechanized canines.

American defense officials have been quick to emphasize that the development of weaponized robot dogs is, at this stage, purely experimental, intended to help military planners “explore the realm of the possible” when it comes to the potential applications of revolutionary robotic systems in a future conflict, as one Army official put it last August. But with Army soldiers conducting urban assault drills alongside robot dogs and the Marine Corps increasingly eyeing mechanical quadrupeds to augment future formations with “intelligent robotics,” it may not be too long before the US military is forced to seriously consider adopting armed robot canines for combat before China does.

“Why are we acting surprised by this? It was so obviously coming,” Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based think tank New America and expert on advanced military technology, tells WIRED. “The first wheeled and tracked [explosive ordnance disposal] robots had cameras on them to inspect roadside bombs, then someone added guns to them; the same thing with the Predator drone, which started out unarmed until the military strapped missiles to it. Armed robotics has been a trendline for years.”

A human-machine integration test using the Ghost Robotic Dog and the US Army Small Multipurpose Equipment Transport at Fort Irwin, California, March 15, 2024.Photograph: Spc. Samarion Hicks/U.S. Army/DVIDS

Man’s Best Friend

Quadrupedal robots aren’t a new development in the annals of military technology. In 2005, robotics leader Boston Dynamics unveiled BigDog, a four-legged mechanical “pack mule” that was intended to haul weapons and supplies for US troops over terrain considered unwelcoming to traditional wheeled or tracked ground vehicles. Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and adopted as the Legged Squad Support System by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, BigDog was eventually deemed too loud for practical use and discontinued after a decade and more than $40 million invested in the much-hyped project.

Despite BigDog’s shortcomings, the underlying research behind the system eventually gave rise to Spot, a smaller and quieter “robot dog” that Boston Dynamics debuted in 2015. While too small to lug around gear and weapons, the system immediately had clear military applications for everything from base perimeter security to remote site inspection. In the years since its introduction, Spot has proven the platform-defining vision of quadrupedal ground robots, inspiring both collaborators like Asylon Robotics’ DroneDog and alleged imitators like Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 to compete for a slice of the Defense Department’s growing robotics budget.

Based on publicly available media in Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS), the Pentagon’s media distribution hub, the adoption of robot dogs across the US military didn’t start in earnest until 2020, when the Air Force integrated a handful of Ghost Robotics systems into what’s called an “agile combat employment” exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, which saw airmen work with their new best friends to secure an airfield against a simulated attack. Just a few months later, officials at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida became the first US military installation in the world to incorporate the semiautonomous robot dogs into its base security regimen.

“These dogs will be an extra set of eyes and ears while computing large amounts of data at strategic locations throughout Tyndall Air Force Base,” Major Jordan Criss, 325th Security Forces Squadron commander, said of the systems during initial testing in late 2020. “They will be a huge enhancement for our defenders and allow flexibility in the posting and response of our personnel.”

In the intervening years, robot dogs have become an increasingly common fixture across the US military, beyond patrolling sensitive installations. In July 2023, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota introduced robot dogs to enable airmen to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats “without risking the safety of themselves or others.” In August, Patrick Space Force Base in Florida added robot dogs to its perimeter security rotation for an “additional detection and alert capability.” That same month, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division, announced the employment of robot dogs to “build 3-D ship models aboard the ‘mothballed’ fleet of decommissioned ships at the Philadelphia Navy Yard,” while the Coast Guard unveiled four-legged “droid” dogs in Hawaii to “combat weapons of mass destruction.” Finally, in November, airmen at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana debuted robot dogs for explosive ordnance disposal.

Despite these practical noncombat applications, some robotics companies have had an eye on weaponization. In October 2021, Ghost Robotics showed off a so-called “Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle,” or SPUR, quadrupedal robot with an 6.5-mm Creedmoor assault rifle developed by SWORD International mounted on its back during an annual Army weapons expo in Washington, DC, in the first public example of a robot dog armed with a firearm. The following year, a video of a robot dog outfitted with a PP-19 Vityaz submachine gun by Russian entrepreneur Alexander Atamov quickly went viral on YouTube and Twitter. By 2023, an American company had debuted a robot dog with a flamethrower strapped to its back, albeit not explicitly for military use (no longer fielded to US soldiers, using flamethrowers against enemy combatants is technically not prohibited). Like the Predator drone, you can’t build a new robot without someone slapping a weapon on it.

Cry Havoc

The public reception to weaponized robot dogs is overwhelmingly defined by concern mixed with discomfort, especially given the rise of autonomous or semiautonomous weapon systems that can independently track and identify targets. Even beyond the conventional invocation of Terminator-inspired techno-anxiety, the robot dogs appear eerily reminiscent of the menacing mechanized canines of Black Mirror.

Part of the creep factor stems from the “uncanny valley,” says Singer, invoking the psychological phenomenon in which robots that look and act almost-but-not-quite natural end up unnerving their human observers. “On the engineering side, these robots take inspiration from nature, since real dogs are, through evolution, designed to operate really well in the field,” Singer says. “As a result, we layer our beliefs about these types of creatures on top of ‘bioinspired’ robots, and the more something acts lifelike but not likelike, the more we react with fear or disgust.”

Such anxiety over armed robot dogs even prompted six leading robotics companies—led by Spot pioneer Boston Dynamics—to release a letter in October 2022 promising to prohibit military customers from weaponizing their robots for combat purposes. (SPUR creator SWORD International was not a signatory.)

“We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated, widely available to the public, and capable of navigating to previously inaccessible locations where people live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues,” the companies wrote. “Weaponized applications of these newly-capable robots will also harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society.”

To be fair, both the US military and American robotics companies have urged caution when it comes to developing autonomous weapons systems. Upon unveiling the SPUR, late Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh emphasized that the armed robot always has an operator in the loop, with no AI or autonomy-related systems that could potentially falter under extreme circumstances. And while the SENTRY turret that MARSOC is reportedly testing affixed to a pair of robot dogs does use AI to scan for and identify targets, the company also emphasized that the decision to engage with the weapon system is completely reliant on a human operator. While the idea of armed robot dogs with minds of their own running amok may be a recent addition to Americans’ dystopian imagination, the US military-industrial complex appears firmly focused on keeping humans in control at all times.

Ghost Robotics Quadruped Unmanned Ground Vehicles (Q-UGV) pose for a photo at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, in July 2022.Photograph: Senior Airman Samuel Becker/U.S. Space Force/DVIDS

Despite understandable concerns over their growing role in military affairs, anxiety over packs of armed robot dogs operating on a future battlefield may be premature, according to Sam Bendett, an analyst at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses think tank whose research focuses on robotics and unmanned systems. While footage of armed robot dogs may alarm the average observer, these systems are currently nowhere near agile or versatile enough to make practical sense on chaotic battlefields.

“I had a chance to operate [a robot dog] at an AI conference in the Netherlands last year, and it doesn’t have the same dexterity you would expect from a quadruped,” Bendett tells WIRED. “It’s not quite as dexterous, as flexible, or as fast in how it operates. Apart from videos of them doing push-ups and shit like that, it doesn’t run, it can maybe jog, but it can’t even make a turn quite as fast as a tracked or wheeled unmanned ground vehicle.”

“The battlefield is full of man-made and natural countermeasures,” he adds. “That doesn't mean the US and China won't try it out, but it’ll just be in a more limited capacity.”

The Chinese military exercise spotlighted on CCTV may appear concerning, but it’s still a controlled exercise in a managed, relatively stable environment, Bendett says. Until robot dogs demonstrate that they can navigate “the debris of the battlefield” under less-than-ideal conditions, they’ll remain something of a mechanical novelty for military planners.

“Yes, they’re neat, they’re cool,” Bendett says. “But show me a video of a pack of these moving on their own through a forest, not just walking by tapping their feet at every step but actually jogging between trees the way I would with a dog. Then we’ll get to the point where these are actual combat dogs.”

It’s unclear what the future of robot dogs might look like in the ranks of the US military, or even the Chinese military. While they’ve certainly proved useful in augmenting base security and conducting hazardous operations like explosive ordnance disposal, their potential combat applications remain understandably ambiguous. But given American and Chinese military planners’ ongoing experiments with armed robot dogs, the future of warfare may involve not just the grind of tank treads and the roar of helicopter rotors, but the metallic patter of four-legged death across distant battlefields.

Corrected: 6/16/2024, 7:24 EST: SPUR creator SWORD International is not a signatory to an open letter.