By MICHAEL FUMENTO
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
It's "one of the most amazing inventions of 2004," according to Time Magazine. But to terrorists in Iraq it may be the scariest. By April, GIs there will be deploying 18 robots so small they could almost crawl between your legs. Don't let size fool you though; these motorized midgets pack a powerful punch. They can fire machine guns, a six-barreled 40-millimeter grenade launcher, and multiple rocket systems.
The Sword is the first armed variant of a track-wheeled robot developed by Foster-Miller of Waltham, Mass., called the TALON. That machine proved itself in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq in removing mines and other explosives. TALON robots have now completed more than 20,000 such missions and I was proud to find Internet photos of my former unit using them to protect Afghans.
The robo-warrior version has no independent capabilities like a T1 Terminator; rather it uses an outside operator with a viewing screen and joystick control. And like its flying cousin the Predator, its main job isn't killing but reconnaissance. Swords can be equipped with off-the-shelf chemical, gas, temperature, and radiation sensors. They carry up to seven cameras of any combination including thermal, night vision, zooms, and wide area.
But like the Predator, when opportunity strikes it can too.
No offense to our soldiers' skill, but Swords are much better shots. That's because in the fear and confusion of a firefight, maintaining full composure is virtually impossible. In Vietnam, it took about 50,000 rounds to kill a single enemy. The Sword reduces that to something closer to the sniper's motto of: "One shot, one kill," because the operator is hidden anywhere from 200 to 1,000 meters away. He can coolly pick out targets as if playing a video game.
No grieving parents
The Sword has many other advantages. It might get shot up but will never come home to grieving parents. Even in cold economic terms it could be better to lose a Sword considering that the cost of simply training a soldier to get him to his first duty station is an estimated $50,000. A sergeant might represent an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Another economic advantage is that those spent 50,000 rounds cost about $25,000. The price of the initial 18 Swords is $230,000 each. But according to Foster-Miller spokesman Arnis Mangolds that's already been reduced to about $170,000 for the second set of 18 being made and could drop much further if manufactured on an assembly line. The terrorists aren't just trying to bleed us dry in blood but also in money; the Sword will slash away at both efforts.
The robo-warriors are ideal for ambushes. The need to sleep, eat, and excrete all limit the ability of even top soldiers to lay in wait. (I learned as a soldier that few things are more exhausting than lying absolutely still for hours on end.) But the Sword can sit patiently in "sleep mode" in any weather for as long as seven days. Upon detecting the enemy, it would alert its operator and could directly contact those who can call in air strikes or artillery. The Sword could then join in.
Their main protection is their tiny size -- about 30 inches feet tall, 22 inches wide, and 34 inches long. Further, "All the critical components are to the rear so bullets fired from the front would have to get through a lot of claptrap," says Mangolds.
If knocked over, a Sword dusts itself off and gets back on its treads. Nor is terrain a problem with these steel soldiers. They can climb stairs, go over rock piles, overcome concertina wire, plow through snow, and go through water.
With its capabilities steadily improving, the Sword will prove an important weapon both in killing terrorists and saving American lives. Now if they could only get it to say "Hasta la vista, baby!"
X Michael Fumento, formerly of the 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat)(Airborne), is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.