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WASHINGTON — Ammunition was running low on a base in Afghanistan’s Helmand province that had come under sustained attack in January, and the Marine Corps sent in a robot to help.

Within six hours of the call for resupply, an unmanned Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-MAX helicopter was on its way to drop off a load of 60mm mortar rounds. The following day, the K-MAX — able to fly itself in and out of danger using GPS coordinates — returned with a load of 40mm grenades.

Marine aviators could have flown a massive CH-53 cargo helicopter on both missions, but it would have meant touching down twice in a hot landing zone, said Maj. Daniel Lindblom, operations officer for Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, currently operating out in Regional Command-Southwest.

“The risk assessment was made by my boss, the wing operations officer, (who) made the decision he did not want to risk the lives of those 10 crew members on the two CH-53s to fly that cargo in there,” Lindblom told Pentagon reporters Wednesday during a conference call from Afghanistan.

While lethal autonomous weapons systems that don’t fully exist yet tend to dominate the headlines and stir up controversy over the ethical and political ramifications of robotic war, the Marines and other parts of the military are also developing aerial and ground robots to handle a less controversial aspect of war — logistics.

While there are only two Marine K-MAX aircraft operating in Afghanistan on a more or less experimental basis — officials say there are no current plans for more — the program may be a vision of the future of military logistics, with robots rather than troops performing the dangerous, heavy work now done mainly by troops.

To date, the K-MAX helicopters have moved over 3.2 million pounds of cargo within Afghanistan since late 2011, said Navy Capt. Patrick Smith, program manager overseeing unmanned aerial cargo systems at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

The K-MAX carries not just ammo, but emergency supplies of food, water and anti-IED equipment as well, officials said Wednesday.

Already, the aircraft may well have saved lives.

“It is making a dent in the size of the convoys, little by little, and it’s reducing the aircraft that have to fly into these zones,” Lindblom said. “So if you remove one truck off the road, that’s two Marines or two soldiers that aren’t on the road for six or eight hours with the possibility of hitting an IED.” Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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