Faster than a soldier can react. Remember that phrase because it will lead you to killer robots.

When I saw the research and development solicitation today from the Army for ideas about Modular Active Protection Systems (MAPS), I went down a frightening rabbit hole of research, tipped off by a name and an acronym that just had that smell. The request for proposals says nothing about what MAPS is and the innocuous command responsible, TARDEC — the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center — makes, umm, armored vehicles.

But in the solicitation there was reference to the “TARDEC Active Protection System (APS) Technologies Security Classification Guide,” dated November 10, 2011. I had to check. TARDEC kicked off its development program last year “to deliver a common MAPS framework that will enable affordable, reduced-weight, protective systems for ground vehicles across the fleet.” Protective systems? And what’s that word active?

In a short and boring article, TARDEC defines what they are now asking ideas for:

“Active protection systems feature semi-autonomous or autonomous systems that can be integrated onto vehicles to give Soldiers the capability to detect, classify, receive warning cues, and use countermeasures to address threats or imminent threats in the field. For instance, if a combatant fires a rocket-propelled grenade at a vehicle equipped with MAPS, the system can detect the threat in the air and defeat it faster than Soldiers could react. The system also enhances a Soldiers’ ability to return fire by indicating where the threat came from, allowing them to maintain an offensive position.”

Faster than Soldiers could react. Get it? Iron Fist is one example, being offered by General Dynamics, a gizmo on top of an armored vehicle that detects incoming fire and emits an electronics countermeasure and “If needed, a close-range hard kill interceptor physically destroys or deflects the threat a safe distance from the defended platform.” Bright Arrow is another, also from GD, sort of a mini-Gatling gun, with a “Remote-controlled Weapon Station” remote-controlled being, by a soldier.

That led me to an entire fan boy world of RIPSAW — an unmanned ground vehicle that the Army is currently touting. Except that it is also clear to say that RIPSAW will be tele-operated; “a soldier remotely drives it and operates and fires the weapon.” Because? Well, because, the Army says “war is a human endeavor” and robots will never replace soldiers. Department of Defense Directive 3000.09 “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” published in November 2012, even prohibits robots from making life and death decisions without a human in control.

RIPSAW was demonstrated in 2009 at the Eldora Speedway in Ohio; that is, when it was manned. Now? Well, for added protection, it’s unmanned. It’s not far-fetched: MAPS, the active protection system is only a hairs-breath away from “testing” the very thing that the Pentagon supposedly bans. A system on the battlefield or the streets of wherever that reacts faster than a soldier can. Innocuously called active protection. I remain generally skeptical of the danger of killer robots and the noisy campaign against them, but when you see all of this unfolding as some innocent attempt to protect soldiers from the ... how else can you say it? In the human dangers of war, someone should be paying attention to the fine print.

[Art by Sam Woolley. Both photos courtesy of and copyrighted to the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) official Flickr account. All rights belong to RDECOM and are protected under the creative commons license.]